TAMPA — Pieces of one of the most divisive symbols in Hillsborough County came down Tuesday, felled by a stone saw and fork lift.
With little fanfare, a crew detached and removed the two Confederate soldiers that comprise Memoria in Aeterna, a 106-year-old marble monument that has stood in front of the old county courthouse since 1952. By Wednesday morning, the 32-foot-tall obelisk between the two soldiers should be gone, too.
The work marked the latest chapter in a bitter, months-long debate over whether to remove the monument or keep it in place. And it proceeded as a legal fight continued to play out in the courthouse.
About 9 a.m., shortly after crews had set to work, an administrative judge issued a ruling denying a request from Southern heritage groups to temporarily halt the process to relocate the monument.
Save Southern Heritage and Veterans' Monuments of America are suing the county to stop the monument's removal and had asked the court to grant an injunction ordering it to halt work while the lawsuit proceeded. The groups claim the County Commission violated Constitutional law and county codes and ordinances by bypassing both the normal bidding process for county projects and a review from the county Historic Resources Review Board.
In his ruling, Hillsborough Administrative Judge Rex Barbas said the plaintiffs, who also include members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, failed to show all four elements necessary for the injunction. Those elements include "a likelihood of irreparable harm," "unavailability of an adequate legal remedy," and "a substantial likelihood of succeeding on the merits."
"We have said from the beginning that we are confident the County Commission's actions regarding the relocation of the monument are fully legal," County Attorney Chip Fletcher said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "The court's decision to deny the injunction is further evidence of this, and it follows established legal precedent."
The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that legislative bodies like the County Commission have "the sole authority and responsibility to determine the message government conveys on public property," Fletcher said. "We hope that this order denying the injunction will finally resolve the issue."
The legal fight is not over, though.
David McCallister, an attorney who filed the lawsuit and a member of Save Southern Heritage and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the plaintiffs are considering whether to appeal the ruling. Either way, McCallister said, they are pushing forward with the lawsuit with hopes that a judge will find in the plaintiffs favor and order the county to return the statue.
McCallister arrived at the monument Tuesday afternoon, as crews were preparing to load the second statue onto a flatbed trailer. He groaned when he realized the monument was already in pieces.
"They had a bunch of jackals calling for this action and now that it's down they're carving up the corpse like butchers," McCallister said. "No respect. No dignity."
The plan is to resurrect the monument at a small private cemetery owned by the Brandon family in the Tampa suburb that bears their name. A team assembled by the general contractor hired by the county, Tampa-based Energy Services and Products Corp., , is cutting the monument into 26 pieces that will then be trucked to storage to be cleaned, inspected and, if necessary, repaired. The county's timetable calls for the monument to be reassembled in the cemetery by mid-November.
On Tuesday, crews wearing orange t-shirts and sweating under a blazing sun used a saw to cut through the grout that attached the south-facing soldier, returning home from war, bedraggled and dejected. Then they placed metal braces and a metal cage-like contraption around the statue, stuffed the empty spaces with white blocks of padding and lowered it to the ground with a fork lift.
When the statue settled safely onto a wooden pallet, workers exchanged high-fives and posed for pictures. Then they wrapped the statue in clear plastic and loaded it onto a flatbed trailer.
They repeated the process with the north-facing soldier, the one heading to war with his rifle over his shoulder and head held high. It was on the truck by 4 p.m. Crews packed up shortly after with plans to return about 1 a.m. to remove the obelisk.
A smattering of spectators — some mourning, some celebrating and some simply curious — showed up during the day to watch the removal. Except for a short shouting match between a monument supporter and opponent, the work went off without conflict.
County Commissioner Pat Kemp, who voted in July to remove the monument, was among those who stopped by. She recalled how the board voted against removing the monument, reversed course and then, without her support, set a condition requiring private donors to raise half the of the $280,000 to move the monument. The money came rolling in within 24 hours.
For months, she said, the debate has been "an all-consuming force."
"The strength in the feeling to remove it was very, very powerful, so to see this coming down ..." she said, then paused, then said: "It's been a while coming."
Shy Raulerson watched the deconstruction process from behind the chain-link fence that surrounds the site, taking photos with her cell phone. A handkerchief with the Dixie stars and bars dangled from a back pocket of her cut-off jeans.
The 23-year-old Plant City resident and member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy said she came out to make sure the removal is done properly.
"It's sad. It shouldn't be coming down," Raulerson said. "The money should be put toward schools that need air conditioning, our drainage systems, things our county actually needs."
In town for an appointment, 61-year-old Sally Lee stopped on the sidewalk across the street from the courthouse to watch the work for a while. The Tampa resident peered from behind dark glasses as a light rain pattered her black umbrella.
Lee's grandmother was a slave, and Lee herself lived through the civil rights movement. She sees the monument as a tribute to slavery and an "ugly past" and called its removal from public property "a good thing."
"We should heal from the past," she said, "and try to move forward."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.
TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: TAMPA'S CONFEDERATE MONUMENT
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected]tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.