Pensacola, Florida
Friday December 15th 2017

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Dialogue on Public Monuments

By Rick Outzen

In August in the wake of the protest in Charlottesville, VA, that left one person dead, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward and Councilman Larry Johnson publicly stated they wanted to remove the “Our Confederate Dead” memorial from Lee Square. Their statements drew praise and criticism but no action from the mayor’s office.

The University of West Florida will step into the void and begin a public dialogue on the memorial and other public monuments on Nov. 30, from 5:30-7 p.m., as part of its Experience UWF Downtown series at the Pensacola Museum of Commerce, 201 E. Zaragoza Street. The title of the faculty panel discussion is “Public Space, Collective Memory and Community Identity.”

Dr. Jocelyn Evans, Associate Dean of the UWF College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, will serve as a panelist, along with Dr. Brian Hood, chair of UWF Philosophy Department, Dr. William Lees, Director of the University of West Florida’s Florida Public Archaeology Network, and Margo Stringfield with the UWF Archaeology Institute.

“We are going to talk about town squares and the kind of structures that we put up to commemorate things,” said Evans. “And when those things become controversial, how do we have a public dialogue that’s constructive about it, and then where do we go from there? What do we choose to do with those structures?”

She continued, “We’re going to take a lot of different public structures and talk about them from our very disciplinary vantage point and try to foster some good, civil discourse around some things that can be highly emotional.”

When communities debate whether to keep certain monuments, Dr. Evans said, “I think what we have seen are some exemplar positions taken by local governments, we have exemplar cases of arguments being made for both sides, whether they should stay or whether they should go.”

The New Orleans City Council earlier this year declared the city’s four Confederate monuments a public nuisance. The monuments included the Liberty Place monument, an obelisk that commemorated a Reconstruction Era white supremacist attack on the city’s integrated police force; a bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy; a statue of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, mounted high on a horse in a roundabout at the entrance to City Park; and a statue of General Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, in his address about the removal of the monuments, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

Dr. Evans said she recently discussed Landrieu’s speech with the UWF Leisure Learning Society.

“We looked at that address and what his position was, and then we thought about those memorials and what value they bring to the community or take away from the community,” she said. “And there are still arguments to be made on both sides.”

They also talked about the controversy surrounding the Liberty Place monument.

“It’s one of the famous monuments that on the inscription, it talks about preserving white supremacy in the South,” said Evans.  “And that particular language, the city did something about, far earlier, than now. Back in the 1970s, they thought about just moving it, and then in the 1990s, they changed the language. They erased that part of the signage and changed the language about what this place meant to the community.”

New Orleans provides a study of how people offered op-eds with persuasive arguments on both sides of controversial memorials in public spaces and that the actions taken with these spaces tried to evolve them to the present day so the city could both preserve the history as well as illustrate that the community’s identity was no longer the same, according to Evans.

A part of any dialogue on memorials in public spaces is the context of the memorial, which will also be part of the Nov. 30 panel discussion.

“That’s really what I’m going to be talking about—the relevance of the context, both at the time that the fundraising happened to build a monument, the time that it was dedicated, and the intervening events that have happened, that now mediate any reference to that structure,” she said. “Like we won’t be able to talk about Charlottesville in the future without considering what happened.”

She continued, “It’s the same with the Lincoln Memorial. We can’t talk about the Lincoln Memorial without also invoking Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. So, that impacts context, and it becomes part of the social meaning. ”

Mayor Hayward and Councilman Johnson suggested relocating the Pensacola’s Confederate memorial to a museum. Evans has some doubts about that option. She said it was discussed in New Orleans.

“If you move a huge equestrian statue, like the Beauregard, and you put it in the museum, well now, you are dominating that space with this structure,” said Evans. “What does that say about this space? Are museums public spaces, too? There’s a difference between a public square and a public museum.”

She admitted, “It’s tricky. There are no easy answers.”

The UWF faculty panel will bring together experts on controversial memorials in Florida, neglected memorials in Pensacola cemeteries, the social meaning of memorials in civic space, and competing ethical frameworks for critically thinking about keeping or removing contested memorials in the city. Dr. Evans hopes the discussion will be enlightening and open further dialogue on public spaces and memorials.

She said, “What I hope we are able to do is to rise above the emotion involved with, ‘I feel strongly that’ to think about okay, are there competing values here? What are underlying ethical assumptions?”

Dr. Evans added, “Do we disagree on those?” Because if we do, then we might never come to a point of agreement.”

EXPERIENCE UWF DOWNTOWN
WHAT: “Public Space, Collective Memory and Community Identity”—A UWF Interdisciplinary Faculty Panel
WHEN: 5:30-6 p.m. Hospitality Reception, 6-7 p.m. Presentation and Discussion Thursday, Nov. 30
LOCATION: Pensacola Museum of Commerce, 201 E. Zaragoza St.
COST: Free. Seating is limited and will be offered on a first come, first serve basis.
DETAILS: uwf.edu