Friday, May 25, 2018
News Roundup

Can Tampa's Confederate monument rest in peace at Brandon family cemetery?

BRANDON — In the field where his great-grandfather was laid to rest, on the land his great-great-grandfather settled and his grandfather and father helped develop into a thriving suburb, Ken Brandon, Jr. hopes to bury the debate over Tampa's Confederate monument.

"I hope there's no controversy of any kind. When it's done it's done," Brandon said. "Let it find its final resting place on that one corner until time takes its toll."

Last month, Hillsborough County commissioners voted 4-2 to relocate the 106-year-old Confederate statue from outside the old county courthouse in downtown Tampa to a small cemetery owned by the Brandon family, the namesake of the east Hillsborough community.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: TAMPA'S CONFEDERATE MONUMENT

For Tampa's Confederate monument, racist history clouds claims of heritage (June 16, 2017)

Hillsborough Commissioners vote to keep Confederate monument in downtown Tampa (June 21, 2015)

Majority of Hillsborough commissioners now support moving Tampa's Confederate statue (July 18, 2017)

Hillsborough commission votes to move Tampa's Confederate monument to Brandon cemetery (July 19, 2017)

After vote to move Tampa's Confederate monument, two Hillsborough commissioners had car tires punctured (Aug. 3, 2017)

If the wishes of Ken Brandon — the family patriarch and reluctant spokesman — are realized, it will be a quiet end to a contentious debate that for months has divided this community.

Protestors calling for the statue's removal surrounded the monument while Confederate activists vowed political retribution if commissioners moved it. Former Klu Klux Klan imperial wizard David Duke rallied opposition online. National news outlets covered the fight. Some county commissioners received threats and two had their car tires punctured.

Throughout, Brandon, 80, stayed on the sidelines. He wasn't among the hundred speakers who lined up last month to weigh in on the monument's fate. Nor did he volunteer his family cemetery as a potential compromise. He remembers passing the statue in downtown Tampa as a young kid and hasn't thought about it much since.

But when county staff contacted his family about moving the marble statue to their property, it made sense to him. Not necessarily to appease those who wanted it moved or those who wanted to ensure it wasn't destroyed, though he hopes it does both. And not just because the cemetery is already home to Confederate dead.

In the statue — with its two marble Confederate soldiers, one upright, facing north, headed to battle, the other southbound, humbled, tattered and defeated — Brandon sees his great-grandfather.

•••

James Henry Brandon left east Hillsborough County at age 20 to fight for the Confederate army. He served in the company of Capt. John T. Lesley, the powerful Tampa pioneer and politician, and saw considerable action in Georgia and Tennessee.

In November 1863, while serving in Company K of the Fourth Florida Infantry Regiment, he was captured at the Battle of Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, Tenn., and sent to a prison camp in Rock Island, Ill.

The 12-acre camp had only recently opened, making Brandon one of its first prisoners, said George Eaton, a historian at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. He survived an especially brutal first winter, Eaton said, marred by cold and disease that killed about 600 people in three months.

Of the 12,500 that came through the prison, roughly 2,000 died.

A friend who served alongside Brandon later remarked in a letter to the Tampa Morning Tribune that while in prison Brandon received $50 from an uncle living in the north — a considerable amount. He shared the bounty with the friend, saving him from starvation.

"No truer, no better, no braver man ever entered the Confederate Army," the friend, C.L. Wilder, wrote.

Near the end of the Civil War, in March 1865, Brandon was transferred to another camp, Maryland's Point Lookout, according to records at the Rock Island prison. Upon release, he traveled back home to Hillsborough County by foot.

When he arrived, he had rags wrapped on his feet in place of shoes, Ken Brandon said.

Brandon said he doesn't "get carried away with being a son of a Confederate veteran" and he's "not the 'South will rise again' type." He personally approves of the monument's current location downtown though he understands why some people are pained by it.

The statue of the soldier walking home "broken and dejected fit my great-grandfather just perfectly," he said.

"I just thought it's a fitting tribute to him,'' he said. "And it had to go someplace."

•••

Six generations of the Brandon family are scattered across a quarter-acre plot at the northwest intersection of State Road 60 and Lithia Pinecrest Road.

Among them are John Brandon, a blacksmith who in 1857 moved the family from Mississippi to the area east of Tampa's Fort Brooke. His first wife, Ken Brandon's great-great-grandmother Martha Carson, is there, too, as is his second wife, Victoria Varn, who likely named the area after the family when it was dissected into subdivisions.

Dozens of descendants from John Brandon and both wives still reside around Brandon. In the second half of the 20th century, the family owned considerable land east of Interstate 75 before it was sold and developed, sometimes in reverse order. Ken Brandon, who served in the air force and later worked as a developer, was born in a house that is now a CenterState Bank at the corner of Bloomingdale Avenue and Highway 301.

James Henry Brandon's grave in the family cemetery sits beneath the shadow of a Confederate flag, part of a monument erected by the Sons of Confederate Veterans 20 years ago.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White was the strongest voice on the board against moving the monument from downtown. Nevertheless, he supported the Brandon family cemetery as the alternative destination because of its "rich community history" and its track record of hosting a Confederate marker "peacefully for two decades," he said.

"In the context that it was going to be moved, I'm certainly happy to see that's its destination," said White, who grew up with members of the Brandon family.

Moving a century-old marble statue will be a test of modern engineering.

The statue will be x-rayed to identify its weak points and to see how it might be broken down into as many as 10 separate parts. Ground penetrating radar will be used to ensure the site can handle its weight.

Workers also are using the radar to check for bodies buried in unmarked graves. Twenty unmarked graves were found below ground this week at the designated site. The county will be back out today to see what impact, if any, that could have on the planned move.

Meanwhile, officials are trying to find written accounts from people who may have assisted when the monument moved in 1952 from Franklin Street to what was then a new court house on Pierce Street, said Josh Bellotti, the director of real estate and facilities services.

"There's a lot of investigative work to be done," Bellotti said.

The county does not yet have an estimate of the cost. Tampa lawyer Tom Scarritt, who volunteered to raise private money to pay for the relocation, said the uncertainty is slowing his efforts.

As of Friday, a donation page on the fundraising website GoFundMe, had brought in $4,155 toward a goal of $200,000. Scarritt said he has received other donations offline and he's waiting to hear from several local businesses, including the area's professional sports teams.

If Scarritt cannot raise enough, the county will have to make up the difference.

"I'm confident the people in the community want to get this resolved," Scarritt said.

•••

Located away from public land at a site that already has Confederate connections, the Brandon family cemetery was intended to be a compromise that could appease everyone.

Commissioner Victor Crist argues it has instead appeased no one.

"There's no resolve," Crist said. "There's no win on this. There is no compromise. There is no satisfaction."

At last week's commission meeting, about 10 opponents of moving the monument pleaded for a ballot referendum to let voters decide the statue's fate. Commissioners had rejected that idea last month.

Several activists threatened to fly Confederate flags at sites around Hillsborough County similar to the large rebel battle flag that was raised on private land near interstates 75 and 4 after commissioners stopped recognizing Southern Heritage Day.

"I myself will make sure until the day I'm dead that I flag this area so badly you'll see it from space," said Riverview resident Donny McCurry.

Crist, who missed the July 19 vote to attend a family wedding, said he would have voted against the Brandon site. He preferred a private cemetery in Lutz that was well-funded, regulated by state statues and more secluded but still accessible to those who wished to visit.

The Brandon family cemetery, conversely, is a humble location off a busy road. Thousands of cars pass by on State Road 60 each day. Next door is a pawn shop that advertises it sells guns. A bar, a taco stand and a gas station are within eyesight.

On a recent visit to the cemetery, as Ken Brandon surveyed the grave markers, the peace was interrupted by the siren of a fire truck screaming by.

"Who could imagine wanting to be buried out here?" Brandon deadpans.

Jokes aside, Brandon plans to have his ashes spread in a plot next to his father's. It's already marked by his gravestone.

He noted that the Sons of Confederate Veterans maintains a monument on this site, and that protestors held signs calling for it to be moved. He wonders: Why couldn't this small corner of east Hillsborough history quiet most critics?

"I hope there's no problems with it," Brandon said. "We don't want any publicity. We're just providing a place to avoid conflict."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.

   
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