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AP reveals dark legacy of Native American depicted on Atlanta civil rights statue

A statue, seen from behind, depicting Chief Tomochichi, a Muscogee native who signed the 1733 treaty that launched the Georgia colony, stands at a temporary location in Atlanta, Dec. 20, 2021. The statue was intended for a park honoring civil rights figures, but Muscogee Nation historians call their ancestor a traitor who was complicit in genocide. They also say the statue is inaccurate — he would have been fully clothed, not clutching a bear pelt. (AP Photo / Michael Warren)

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Virtually hidden in plain sight, a civil rights statue unveiled in Atlanta showed a nearly naked “first Georgia Peacemaker” — a primitive and welcoming Muscogee chief. But Atlanta-based reporter Mike Warren found that plans for the bronze statue overlooked a dark legacy — the chief’s reported complicity in slavery and the genocide that forced Native Americans from the Southeast.

Warren suspected the Muscogee Nation hadn’t been consulted about the statue of Chief Tomochichi, and Atlanta’s Black leaders weren’t aware that the intended centerpiece of a statuary park honoring civil rights heroes would depict a Native American who produced slaves for colonists and who promised in Georgia’s founding treaty to return the heads of runaway Africans.

Warren interviewed Muscogee historians who called the statue “disrespectful” and “incredibly inappropriate.” They said that not only would Tomochichi have been fully clothed,but that he was a traitor whom they blame for initiating centuries of genocide and land loss,and that creating a historically inaccurate sculpture of him today is deeply offensive. Warren then shared this with the park’s promoters,who were stunned.

City officials were also surprised when Warren’s deep reporting revealed that a committee responsible for ensuring the statue’s historical accuracy had never met. And after Warren showed how Georgia curriculum mandates the teaching of Tomochichi’s “positive citizenship traits,” such as “good sportsmanship,” leaders promised to work together to present the actual history. Atlanta Councilman Michael Julian Bond told the AP, “Facts are stubborn things.”

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Developer Rodney Mims Cook Jr. stands next to the statue of Muscogee Chief Tomochichi he commissioned for Atlanta’s Peace Park, temporarily installed outside his Millennium Gate Museum, Jan. 26, 2022. Cook calls Chief Tomochichi “a co-founder of Georgia,” but he didn’t consult with the Muscogee Nation, whose tribal historians told the AP the statue is “disrespectful” and “incredibly inappropriate.” After AP’s reporting, Atlanta officials are rethinking plans to place the statue with those of civil rights figures. – AP Photo / Michael Warren

Warren’s initial story and his follow-up reaction piece played heavily with AP customers,and The Atlanta-Journal Constitution credited the “widely read story from the Associated Press” with upending the misguided plan. Other clients and competitors also cited AP,many using Warren’s photos of the $300,000 statue and its promoter.

For bringing to light a hidden historical record and starting a conversation that prompted Atlanta’s city council to rethink a statue that many found offensive, Warren is AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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