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Know the history behind the statue. All of it

Maybe it's best to start with the stuff you can't argue about.

The statue of the Confederate soldier on the courthouse lawn is about 20 feet high, perched on a granite base set off by a bed of lantana and liriope. It was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy on June 3, 1916, the 108th anniversary of Jefferson Davis' birth.

Beyond that, opinions are so divided you can almost see the statue's blank marble face change from malevolent to noble and back again depending on whom you ask about it.

I asked African-American residents because Thursday was Juneteenth, which marks the liberation of slaves after the end of the Civil War. So what do their ancestors think of the county's most visible reminder of that war?

"Every time I go up there, I spit at it,'' said Tommy Mason, the pastor of the Victorious Christian Life Ministries in Spring Hill.

Its location on public property tells black residents the county endorses a cause committed to slavery, he said. This is especially insulting because of recent revelations of widespread racism in the county Utilities Department. Mason wants the statue removed or torn down.

Which would, in turn, insult folks like Joe Weeks, owner of Weeks Hardware, whose maternal and paternal grandfathers fought for the South.

"It represents our heritage,'' said Weeks, a longtime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "It has absolutely nothing to do with black people.''

Because Hernando County was on the southern edge of slave-holding territory, such statues are rare enough in nearby counties that Ku Klux Klan members from throughout Central Florida rallied around the one in Brooksville several times during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Confederate monuments are standard fixtures, however, in town squares throughout North Florida and the rest of the South, said local historian Roger Landers. Many were erected about the time as the one in Hernando, when Civil War veterans were dying off at a rapid rate.

"These were the community's sons and grandsons who went off to war, and the community put up a statue in their honor,'' Landers said. "It's a historic monument.

But it not only recognizes veterans, its engraving praises their "glorious heritage.''

Which fits in with other events of 1916. A year earlier, the release of the film Birth of a Nation inspired a revival of the Klan and Confederate pride. It was also a time when beatings, shootings and lynchings made Hernando one of the most dangerous counties for black people in the United States.

Like this violence, the statue "was used to instill fear and to grip the minds of African-Americans,'' said Mable Sims, whose great-great-uncle was shot, probably by a white gunman, in 1877, and whose cousin was lynched in 1927.

"For me, (the statue) represents brutality and lawlessness.''

Because of her family's history, she may have more right than anyone to demand the statue's removal. She doesn't want that. And if she doesn't, neither do I (though we could certainly lose the spotlight that shines on it every night).

Unlike the Sons of Confederate Veterans' plan to fly a giant battle flag at interstates 75 and 4, the statue isn't a fresh affront. It is an old one — old enough to reveal how people here thought in a long-ago era.

So, yes, it is history. Leave it alone. Just remember the entire history.

Know the history behind the statue. All of it 06/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 23, 2008 11:04am]
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