TAMPA — With images of a toppled North Carolina statue fresh in their minds, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans are now standing guard over the Confederate monument in front of the historic county courthouse in downtown Tampa.
Several members of the group gathered at the courthouse Monday night to watch over "Memoria In Aeterna" after hearing rumors that activists were planning to try to topple it, said David McCallister, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Judah P. Benjamin Camp.
The unofficial guards arrived within hours of news that protestors in Durham, N.C., used a rope to topple a nearly century-old statute that stood in front of the old county courthouse.
"Durham has given impetus to people who want to take them down," McCallister said. "They won't just let them get removed quietly and peacefully."
Sons of Confederate Veterans members were joined by members of the Hillsborough Flaggers, a self-described Southern heritage group that aims to "raise as many Battle flags as possible," according to its Facebook page.
McCallister, who helped stand guard from about 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., said a total of about 20 people came and went Monday night into Tuesday morning. He said members heard a rumor that a busload of activists planned to arrive to pull down the monument with a cable.
Chiseled from marble, the monument features a north facing Confederate soldier heading to war, another walking south toward home in a tattered uniform and a marble obelisk between them.
"The main thing was to keep watch and signal and alert the authorities if anything did happen," McCallister said. "It wouldn't take much with a sledge hammer to basically crumble the soldiers, and I wouldn't put it past the people who want it removed to do that. The soldiers themselves would be martyrs at that point."
The volunteers will be present after business hours, when the hum of daytime activity subsides, McCallister said.
"Nobody's going to try anything during the day," he said.
Asked if the volunteers will be armed, McCallister said: "We're not encouraging that, but what people do themselves is their business. They have to act in a legal manner."
Eddy Durkin, a spokesman for the Tampa Police Department, said officers are aware that volunteers will be gathering near the monument.
"They are doing standard patrols in the area and will be going by to check on them to make sure everything is ok," Durkin said.
The action comes as the deadly nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., is fueling another re-evaluation of Confederate statues in cities across the nation, accelerating their removal.
After initially voting to leave "Memoria In Aeterna" where it is, the Hillsborough County Commission reversed course last month, voting 4-2 last month to remove it. The owner of a private cemetery in Brandon has agreed to take the monument.
The issue is slated to come up again Wednesday, when commissioners are expected to get an update on the removal process. The agenda also features a proposed ordinance that would prohibit the future removal of war memorials, but as written it would not change the vote to move the downtown monument.
McCallister and other Confederate activists are hoping the commission will revisit their previous vote. The safest place for the monument, he said, is its current location. He pointed to last weekend's vandalism at Confederate Memorial Park, a park on private property on U.S. 92 near Interstate 75. Granite markers there were splashed with red paint and defaced with graffiti. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is investigating.
McCallister said the commission should put the issue to vote by referendum.
"This issue will not go away until the people have spoken," he said.
Meantime, he said, volunteers will watch over the monument "for as long as it takes."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.