Ray Charles, who was born in Albany, is immortalized in a revolving monument on Front Street overlooking the Flint River. The Ray Charles Plaza with its piano-key design is a popular photo destination for visitors to Albany.
ALBANY — The words, etched deep into a granite background, offer perhaps a perfect summation of the Vietnam War that so divided America.
“At a time when this country was in a war that was filled with questions, these men fought and died without asking these questions. They died simply for the love of their country.”
At the other end of the monument, located in Veterans Park off Front Street in downtown Albany and nestled in a thicket along the banks of the Flint River, are more sobering words: the names of 36 local men who died in the Vietnam War.
It’s been said that one of the things America does best is memorialize its accomplishments and its heroes. And, indeed, the memorial at Veterans Park, erected to honor Vietnam-era casualties by the Veterans of the Vietnam War organization, is one of a number of monuments in and around Albany that pays tribute to the community’s brightest and best.
In addition to the war dead, monuments in honor of civil rights marchers, British World War II flyboys and even a hometown musical legend dot the landscape in and around Albany. In fact, it’s a safe bet many in the region — including some who work daily downtown — would be surprised to know just how many monuments are in their midst.
In addition to the Vietnam momument at Veterans Park, a much smaller marker has been erected nearby to honor Spec. 4 James Worthy, the only Albany caualty in the Persian Gulf War. The still-magnificent statue of Ray Charles at his piano is the centerpiece of the Ray Charles Plaza just across Oglethorpe Boulevard, which also includes musical-note and piano key benches, while two and a half blocks west, on the lawn of the Dougherty County Courthouse, are the eternal flame honoring American military personnel and a stark black granite memorial to law enforcement personnel who have “made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Just across Pine Avenue, on the lawn of the Government Center, is a marker recognizing the unique War II.
Plaques recognizing Albany founder Nelson Tift and the founding of Dougherty County, erected in 1959 and 1954, respectively, by the Georgia Historical Commission, also adorn the courthouse lawn; while markers recognizing the historic Bridge House and a Blue Star memorial in tribute to U.S. Armed forces are located next to the Charles plaza.
Meanwhile, two very prominent monuments — the Civil Rights Fountain at Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Jackson Street in south Albany and the Confederate Memorial on Ledo Road in northeast Albany — are located within the Albany city limits but outside the downtown proper.
Upkeep of the various monuments that hasn’t been undertaken by various civic, historic and fraternal groups is handled by the city of Albany’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“We keep the grass cut around the monuments, and we remove the lime scale from the Civil Rights Fountain every other year,” Parks and Rec Director Suzanne Davis said. “It’s a minimal budget item for our department.”
Post 1 of the Veterans of the Vietnam War organization is the owner of the Veterans Park monuments, and the organization is responsible of upkeep for both the Vietnam monument and the marker honoring Worthy.
“Congressman Sanford Bishop and I, as well as James Worthy’s family, had that marker put in to honor our only casualty of the first Persian Gulf War,” VVW Post Commander Leo Harrison said. “There’s a lot of vandalism in that area, so I go a couple of times a month to do upkeep, if necessary. The city’s engineers do any electrical maintenance.”
Harrison said there have been a number of interesting stories surrounding the monuments in Veterans Park.
“Ms. (then-City Manager Janice Allen) Jackson ordered the flags taken down in the park because she’d been told they couldn’t be left up without a light on them,” Harrison said. “When I noticed, I called the police and reported the flags stolen. We finally worked that issue out.
“Also, when (then-Commissioner) Arthur Williams brought that draft-dodger (Preston King, who fled to England rather than face induction) here from England and wanted to honor him at the park, I’d gone in to clean the monument and covered it with a black tarp. Williams made a big fuss about it and brought the tarp to a commission meeting, but nothing much was said about it.”
Confederate Memorial Park, which is home to a monument honoring “our Confederate dead,” contains a statue of a Civil War-era rebel soldier standing with his rifle in front of five flags of the era. It’s inscription reads, “They fought not for conquest, but for liberty and their own homes.”
James King, commander of the Albany-based Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp, said his organization is responsible for upkeep of the park and the monument.
“We pay someone to cut the grass as needed, and we spray (weed-control) chemicals along the ditch and around the fenceline,” King said. “I am a former county agent, so I know what safe chemicals to use. I want to stress that our members do all the maintenance at the park, which is in Dougherty County. No public funds are used for its upkeep.”
The Charles statue, surrounding grounds and structures that make up the Ray Charles Plaza are among the reasons it is one of the most visited sites in Albany. A plaque set in a stone base in front of the statue tells a bit of Charles’ history. The words on the plaque are also inscribed in braille, in recognition of the blindness that afflicted the hall-of-fame singer, who was born in Albany.
A miniature version of the monument is on display in the Albany Visitors Center, just down Front Street from the lifesize Charles statue.