Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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Which Side Are You On?

The debate around Pensacola’s Confederate statue heats up
By C.S. Satterwhite

One of William Faulkner’s most quoted lines still speaks to us today: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Written as the United States was entering the Civil Rights Era, Faulkner’s quote feels relevant today as several cities, including Pensacola, continue to grapple with the lasting legacy of the Civil War.

A week after a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia turned deadly, national attention quickly turned to the removal of Confederate imagery from public spaces throughout American cities.

Presently, there are hundreds of monuments and statues honoring the Confederacy across the South, with over two dozen in Florida alone. Pensacola’s Confederate statue, based off of an 1880 painting named “After Appomattox” by John Adams Elder, currently hovers over the downtown area, as it has since 1891.

The recent events in Charlottesville however, have placed Pensacola’s memorial honoring “Our Confederate Dead” in doubt.

“Anger. Complete anger.”
On Saturday, Aug. 12, a 20-year old white supremacist named James Fields was in Charlottesville to join a major protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The night before, Americans witnessed torch yielding masses at the “Unite the Right” rally chanting “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”

Public officials feared the protests would become violent. Days before the protest, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe urged his “fellow Virginians who may consider joining either in support or opposition to the planned rally to make alternative plans.” Despite the governor’s warning, large groups on both sides converged on Charlottesville, and the worst fears of many were realized.

The following day, protests turned violent with several confrontations and physical attacks. The attacks turned deadly when Fields, an Ohio native, drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 19 people and killing one woman, 32-year-old Heather Heyer of Charlottesville.

Katrina Ramos, a local activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, said her reaction to Charlottesville was, “Anger. Complete anger.”

“Charlottesville just reignited this anger, and really this fear of being just a black person in America,” said Ramos. “Charlottesville is just another punch in the gut. Just another stab wound telling me it doesn’t matter what [African Americans] think…It’s a hurt that I cannot put into words.”

Ramos was bothered by media coverage, which she felt, depicted African Americans in a hostile light.

“Even when it’s being displayed [on the news] that black people are being harmed,” said Ramos, “black people are being beaten to the point where you have a young man who has his head bashed open, we are the antagonists.”

Ken Daniel, a board member with Save Southern Heritage-Florida, was also bothered by what he saw on television taking place in Charlottesville.

Daniel said he was in West Point, New York when the news from Charlottesville erupted.

“It was obvious to me that the Mayor [of Charlottesville] and the Chief of Police were doing very little to separate the sides,” which Daniel saw as a formula for trouble.

“Solidarity with Charlottesville”
While both Ramos and Daniel, as well as many Americans, paid considerable attention to Charlottesville, local focus quickly turned to the Confederate statue standing in the center of Lee Square on North Palafox.

The day after Heyer’s murder, the Northwest Florida chapter of Indivisible organized a “Solidarity with Charlottesville” march starting at Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza and heading north to the base of the Confederate statue. One activist with Indivisible was so moved that she decided to take steps further than the solidarity march.

Eva Ernst, a resident of Pensacola currently attending New College in Sarasota, said that she knew of the statue before the protest, but like many people who pass by it daily, paid little attention.

“After talking with others about human rights, I realized that I need to step up and do something about this and move past our Confederate actions in a meaningful way,” said Ernst.

Ernst’s own personal action was to start an online petition to remove the statue from Lee Square.

Ernst wrote in her petition: “With hate crimes and white nationalist movements on the rise, we as a city must come together to make some serious symbolic strides to combat racism. With the removal of this statue, we can put an end to glamorizing the Confederacy and recognize that they stood for the continued enslavement of black people in this country.”

Within days, Ernst’s petition garnered hundreds of signatures, as well as local media coverage. The increased attention brought Mayor Ashton Hayward into the discussion.

After the news broke out about Charlottesville, and a somewhat spontaneous toppling of a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina, Hayward told NewsRadio 1620 AM that his first sentiment was to bring down the statue.

“I got back in town and I started going down that path, unilaterally doing that,” said Hayward.

Hayward said that his staff worked “around the clock on this,” but returned to the conclusion that he doesn’t have the authority to act unilaterally. The mayor’s office soon released a statement condemning “white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and all other hate groups who do not share our democratic values.”

Hayward’s initial statement fell short of advocating for the removal of the Confederate statue, but his radio appearance launched a storm of online criticism from supporters of the statue, as well as attention to Ernst’s petition.

“I was incredibly surprised as to how quickly [the petition] increased in supporters,” said Ernst. “I started this petition so that the conversation would get people interested, but I honestly thought that this would take much longer to reach the news, the Mayor and the public than it has.”

The attention also brought another petition urging the mayor to keep the statue. “As horrible as those events were,” read the pro-Confederate statue petition, “it should not be a rallying call to destroy history.”

While both petitions have local and non-local signatures, the petition to keep the statue in place is outpacing the petition to have the Confederate statue removed.

At first, the mayor drew both praise and ire for expressing his desire to bring the statue down, but by the end of the week Hayward released a follow-up statement.

“While my opinion has not changed—the monument should be moved or put in its proper context—I am not advocating for unilateral action.” Instead, the Mayor urged the Pensacola City Council to take action concerning “preservation of historical resources.”

“Dixie”
As with most monuments, many drive by without knowing the history or the context of their placement.

At the end of Pensacola’s brief time in the Confederacy, the city quickly went back to the Union hands.

After President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation allowed for the enlistment of black soldiers into the U.S. Army, both Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas saw black men in uniform serving to protect the United States in Pensacola. Although soldiers from the Union and Confederacy are buried in Fort Barrancas, Union soldiers, including 252 soldiers from the U.S. Colored Troops, far outnumber the 72 Confederate dead buried.

As white Pensacolians returned from the war, some felt their “options were very limited and in many cases binary,” said Matthew Clavin, Professor of History at the University of Houston and author of “Aiming for Pensacola: Fugitive Slaves on the Atlantic and Southern Frontier.”

According to Clavin, “they could join the Northerner conquerors in reconstructing a South that was free, progressive and multiracial, or fight to the death to retain as much of the traditional ‘Old South’ culture as possible.”

The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations, often led by former Confederates, formed to oppose the Republican, and especially black, voting blocs in the South. Blacks in Alabama and Mississippi felt the brunt of these former Confederates trying to restore their order, but Pensacola largely avoided this regional terrorism of white supremacists during the early years of Reconstruction.

After the war, Pensacola entered its Reconstruction years as the city’s African American population, as well as much of its white population, began to prosper. During this period, a multiracial government oversaw the day-to-day life of Pensacolians.

Former Civil War veterans such as John Sunday, who served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the war, continued their public service in local government. In the two decades following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Pensacola had over twenty African Americans serve in public office. This period came to an abrupt end with the 1884 election of Governor Edward Perry.

Governor Perry, a former Confederate general who resided in Pensacola, ran for Florida’s top office with the promise to rid the state of its “carpetbagger” Republican governments. At the time of Perry’s election, Pensacola’s black population was among the highest in the state. According to the 1880 census, among the 12,000 residents of Escambia County, 45 percent were African American and most voted Republican.

Although Perry didn’t carry Escambia County in the election, he won across the state. One of Perry’s first acts as governor was to abolish Pensacola’s city charter, which allowed the governor to remove all Republican black public officials and replace them with hand-picked Democrats, including his friend and former Confederate officer William D. Chipley.  According to a Feb. 18, 1885 article in the Atlanta Constitution “The [white] mayor and [black] marshal were arrested, and the provisional officers took charge of the city without any interference.”

“Lost Cause”
In one legal maneuver, Reconstruction was over, and the city of Pensacola would not see a multiracial government such as what it had in the 1880s for another century.

During Perry’s four years as governor, the Reconstruction-era 1868 Florida constitution, which officially brought Florida back into the United States, gave numerous rights to African Americans, most notably the right for African American men to vote was gutted.. The 1885 constitutional convention, which Perry oversaw, undid most of those gains. Segregation within public schools was now mandatory, interracial marriage became illegal, and a poll tax was instituted, which disenfranchised most African Americans and poor whites. Voter participation in the subsequent election dropped 27 percent.

Perry, a Democrat, was part of a Southern movement attempting to “redeem” the region from the changes whites saw take place during the Reconstruction years.

Historically, this period where many of the post-Reconstruction Confederate iconography and histories arose, is known as “Redemption,” which is the context for the movement to glorify the “Lost Cause” after the South’s defeat.

Governor Perry served one term and died months after leaving office. He is buried in St. John’s Historic Cemetery.

One of Perry’s final dreams was a memorial to honor his fallen comrades. Originally slated to go to Tallahassee, Perry’s wife and supporters with the Ladies Confederate Monument Association of Pensacola, worked to have the memorial completed.

In 1889, the park known as Florida Square, where Union forces are believed to have occupied during the war, was renamed to honor General Robert E. Lee.

According to Clavin, “In the decades after the Civil War, few Americans [North or South] felt compelled to celebrate an event that resulted in more than a million casualties in just a few years. So they didn’t.”

Clavin continued, “It wasn’t until a generation of Americans that had not experienced that war came of age that monuments were erected to both remember the sacrifices of a previous generation and serve contemporary political agendas, such as the promotion of legalized racial segregation.”

In fact, it was the widows of Governor Perry and Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory who spearheaded fundraising to gather the $5,000 to finish the project. The memorial honoring “Our Confederate Dead”—as well as Governor Perry, Secretary Mallory, and Jefferson Davis—was dedicated on June 17, 1891 to a crowd of a few thousand people, many of them Confederate veterans from all over the South.

As the bands played ‘Dixie’ and ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ to honor the Confederate dead, little is known about what the numerous African American veterans of the same war did to mark the occasion or the ascendency of a Confederate statue over a town that, by the end of the decade, was majority black.

“Representation of oppression and suppression”
Throughout Florida, there are a little more than a dozen Union monuments to represent the sacrifice of the victors. In Pensacola, the closest things to Union war memorials are the hundreds of graves in Barrancas National Cemetery, black soldiers, and white soldiers, many whose names are unknown.

As for the losing side of the Civil War, that’s another story.

Pensacola is far from unique when it comes to cities honoring the Confederacy. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, over 1,500 Confederate memorials exist in the United States, with several in Union states. Whether the intention was to implicitly link the statues with white supremacy, especially for those built between the end of Reconstruction and the Modern Civil Rights Movement, many see the connections.

“I feel that this statue is a direct representation of oppression and suppression of a particular population,” said Rodney Jones.

Jones is the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “It shows complete disdain for those who fell victim [to the Confederacy] and those who fought diligently side-by-side to eliminate this regime,” said Jones.

“The NAACP’s position locally is we stand against anything, anyone, any representation, or idea that perpetuates racism, hatred, bigotry and discrimination in any way, shape or form,” he continued.
Flagler College historian Michael Butler recently spoke about the issue on  WCOA’s “Pensacola Speaks” show.

According to Butler, “One of the things these symbols were meant to do is to rewrite the historical record, to show that normality didn’t come to the South until white Southern Democrats were back in control of the government apparatus.”

“Not coincidentally,” said Butler, “the black vote was also pretty much eliminated throughout the South.”

Butler is the author of “Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980.”

According to Butler, the issue surrounding the statue is multifaceted, but ultimately the problem is political.

“It’s a failure by political leadership to address the topic head on, to have hard conversations,” said Butler. “We keep kicking this issue down the road instead of addressing it head on,” said Butler.

Activists on both sides see the statues as divisive, even when they come from different vantage points.

Nonetheless, Butler takes exception to a common notion that the removal of Confederate symbols is an erasure of history.

“Even if you don’t understand where the other side is coming from, you have to be willing to listen and take ownership of how other people feel,” said Butler. “I just don’t understand personally why people would think that their right to have something that offends so many displayed in a public place, trumps, (no pun intended) the feelings of those who feel aggrieved. I don’t understand that.”

Daniel, whose organization stands firm in their support for keeping the Confederate statue in place, has a different take.

“There is no legal protection, by the Bill of Rights or Constitution, for anyone being offended,” said Daniel. “Our First Amendment basically says if you are offended, get over it.”

Daniel, who said his four great-great grandfathers fought for the Confederacy, also takes issue with what he sees as a misrepresentation of his heritage.

“I am personally offended by many who say they are offended,” said Daniel. “This [Confederate] Soldier’s Memorial represents the sacrifices of Florida ancestors who took up arms to defend their land and families from invaders from the Northern Union States.”

Daniel compared the destruction of Southern monuments to the 1937 Nazi-led destruction of Jewish homes and businesses in the infamous night known as Kristallnacht.

“History is being destroyed.”

Both historians, Butler and Clavin, see the issue very differently.

“Even if you don’t agree with the issue, the whole idea of rewriting history I think is absurd. Just because we take symbols and statues down, does not mean that we’re rewriting the historical record.”

Clavin agrees. “The real history can always be found in schools, colleges, universities, libraries, museums and other institutions of learning, without the influence of biased politicians and community leaders who typically fund, sponsor and organize the erection of statues and other historical monuments,” said Clavin.

“It’s time to recognize the real reason why white southerners began erecting statues to the Confederacy more than a century ago,” said Clavin, which includes acknowledging “that the days of slavery and widespread white supremacy have long passed and will, thankfully, never return.”

Ernst, whose initial petition helped spark the public discussion, adds that she too does not want history erased. Quite the opposite. “We need to keep talking about race and the Civil Rights Movements in our communities and schools,” said Ernst.

Ernst said the purpose of a statue is to honor an individual or a group of people. “In this case, those individuals fought to maintain the institution of slavery in the South, which is not something to be commended,” said Ernst.

“If the statue continues to stand as is…”
Despite the controversy, the fate of the statue is still unclear. The mayor and at least two city council members have gone on record in favor of its removal, but the rest of the Pensacola City Council has not officially taken a stance as of this writing.

“If the statue continues to stand as is,” said Ernst, “that would show me and other proponents of civil rights that our city is not willing to let go of its monuments to systemic racism.”

Ernst adds that if the statues are removed, and placed in a museum or another space, not on public land, this will indicate Pensacola may be willing to engage in meaningful dialogue around human rights “without problematic sentiments and callbacks to our racist past.”

Ramos would also like to see the statues come down and put in a museum, but is less optimistic about the statue’s removal being much more than a symbolic gesture.

“The bigger issue is stopping the systemic issues that are plaguing our cities and town. It’s not stopping school-to-prison pipelines. It’s not stopping racism. It’s not stopping poverty. It’s not stopping the wage gap.”

Concerning the statue’s removal, Ramos says “I get it,” but adds “it’s like putting a band aid on a gunshot wound.”

Ramos said she was happy to see the Confederate flag come down over the city, but thought more would come from the symbolic gesture. “There are so many ideas connected to those statues and flags,” said Ramos. “So many ideas connected to inferiority and superiority when we look at this city.”

“So we took the flag down, but you still have a third of the population here that’s illiterate,” Ramos said. “You still have a humungous wage gap. You still have poverty in this town. You still have people profiting off of the poverty here in Pensacola. So if we’re not addressing these issues, if we’re not stopping these issues, taking down the statue is doing absolutely nothing. It’s just taking down a statue.”

“If we’re not tearing down everything that’s connected to it, then you might as well leave it right there,” Ramos said.

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Protests Planned
Currently, monument defenders plan to hold a rally on Saturday, Aug. 26 around the statue to show their support of protecting it.

Of course, counter protests are also being planned.

One of those counter protests is being organized by Strive (Social Trans Initiative). According to their protest event page, the reasons to take down the statue are clear: “We must drive out all traces of hatred, racism, and/or fascism. Nazis and klans people are murdering people over these monuments and this ‘heritage’; it is time for this heritage to be done away with once and for all.”