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Philippe Park in Pinellas is named for a slave trader. Should it be renamed?

Odet Philippe is renowned as the first non-native resident of Pinellas County and for bringing the citrus and cigar industries to the area. He also bought, sold and owned Black people.

SAFETY HARBOR — Around the nation, historical symbols of oppression are being removed.

NASCAR banned the Confederate Flag. President Woodrow Wilson’s name will be wiped from a building at Princeton University.

Historian and Safety Harbor resident Lou Claudio hopes the climate will add fuel to his years-long crusade to rename Philippe Park, which is run by Pinellas County.

Local historian Louis Claudio in Philippe Park, Safety Harbor near an historical marker.
Local historian Louis Claudio in Philippe Park, Safety Harbor near an historical marker. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Odet Philippe is renowned as Pinellas’ first non-native permanent settler and for bringing the cigar and citrus industries to the Tampa Bay area.

And because Philippe was part Black, he could also be considered the first non-native person of color to settle land in Pinellas.

But he was also a slave trader and enslaved Black people on his 160-acre plantation, land that today includes the 122-acre park.

Related: Tampa man’s grandfather was a civil rights pioneer, another ancestor was a black slave owner

“It’s not a matter of political correctness,” Claudio said. “It’s a matter of historical correctness and, in my opinion, Philippe’s buying, selling and owning people disqualifies his name from being on a Pinellas County park paid for and maintained by taxpayers, including African American taxpayers. It’s just that simple.”

A painting of Odet Philippe hangs on the wall of the Safety Harbor Museum next to a model of his pioneer cabin which was located in what is now Philippe Park in Safety Harbor.
A painting of Odet Philippe hangs on the wall of the Safety Harbor Museum next to a model of his pioneer cabin which was located in what is now Philippe Park in Safety Harbor. [ KEELER, SCOTT | Times ]

Claudio has been lobbying the Pinellas County Commission for a change since 2015. While they have shown interest, there has been no movement.

He hopes things are different now.

“We are at a significant cultural crossroad in America,” Claudio said. “Our history is getting a long-overdue, hard re-examination amidst calls for changes.”

One suggestion, he said, is to name the park for the Tocobaga tribe who lived on the land centuries before Philippe arrived. Their village was wiped out by the Spaniards in the 1500s.

They left a temple mound made of sand and shells, 20 feet high and 150 feet across, now recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Placards near the mound provide a history lesson on the Tocobaga tribe.

Related: USF students seeking new answers to historic questions about Safety Harbor's Philippe Park

Claudio’s pitches for the name change led to the Philippe Park entrance sign in 2017 receiving a sub-heading in smaller letters that reads, “Site of the Tocobaga Capital Village.”

But Claudio said that is not enough. The park is still named after a slave trader and owner.

Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas NAACP, likes the Tocobaga renaming option.

“We do need to discuss if a park should be named for someone like Philippe,” Atkinson said. “I have talked to Lou about it and I think his request is a good one — to name it for the indigenous people who were there before Philippe.”

County Administrator Barry Burton said a name change can be discussed but disagrees with Claudio that this is the time.

“I have talked to the NAACP and others about it,” Burton said. “But the biggest issue we have right now is that we are in the middle of a pandemic. For now, it is best to put it on the back burner.”

Visitors from Freedom Sailing Camp use the waters of Tampa Bay and  Philippe Park, Safety Harbor, Friday, July 17, 2020.
Visitors from Freedom Sailing Camp use the waters of Tampa Bay and Philippe Park, Safety Harbor, Friday, July 17, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

It’s not as easy as renaming just the one park, Burton said. Instead, he believes there needs to be policies and guidelines for what is considered to be an objectionable name on county property.

“We have a lot of parks and roads named after people,” Burton said. “Where do we begin and end in our review of how people obtained the name and whether or not we find that to be objectionable.”

Philippe’s great-great-great grandson J. Allison DeFoor, who authored Odet Philippe: Peninsular Pioneer, does not object to the park being renamed. But he said that decision should not be made in haste.

His own book outed Philippe’s past.

“I don’t sugar coat anything,” said DeFoor, now an Episcopal prison priest.

Still, he said, “You can’t look at a movie by one or two frames. He had bad aspects. But he also had good aspects.”

Philippe’s life story is clouded in mystery, with tales once thought to be fact now considered romanticized fiction.

He was born in Saint-Dominigue, a French colony in today’s Haiti, DeFoor said, to one white and one Black parent. DeFoor says his “best guess” is that the father was a white French military man stationed there and the mother was a local Black woman.

“That was somewhat common in those days,” he said. “Then, as now, social status was not entirely by race.”

Philippe later boasted that he served as chief surgeon in Napoleon’s army and received a treasure chest from a pirate whose illness he cured. DeFoor said neither of those claims are true.

“But he was certainly a fence for pirates and slave trading was part of that job,” DeFoor said. “He did own slaves.”

But Philippe also had the courage to settle in Florida in 1842 in what were “rough times,” DeFoor said. “This was a frontier. When he got here, Spain hadn’t even left, and Americans were just coming on the horizon.”

What’s more, Philippe did indeed plant the first citrus in Pinellas and roll the first cigar for profit.

“He was clearly a pivotal figure in the history of the west coast of Florida,” DeFoor said. Still, Philippe’s life was a “mixed checkerboard” so “there is probably a discussion to be had” about Claudio’s push to rename the park that was established in 1948.

Lou Claudio, a historian from Safety Harbor, stands in the center of parking lot 1 at Tropicana Field where the Oaklawn Cemetery was once located on the corner of 16th street and 5th Ave. S. in St. Petersburg.
Lou Claudio, a historian from Safety Harbor, stands in the center of parking lot 1 at Tropicana Field where the Oaklawn Cemetery was once located on the corner of 16th street and 5th Ave. S. in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Claudio has become a steward of Pinellas history in recent years. Now, he said, is the time to discuss removing Philippe’s name from the park.

Related: Are there graves under Tropicana Field parking lots? Archaeologists want to find out

“Where people want to draw the line on what names should or should not be removed from parks and buildings is up to them,” Claudio said. “I am just putting the history and the option out there. If people are comfortable with that history of slavery, fine. But maybe they are more comfortable with the Native American history.”

Or maybe not, DeFoor said.

After all, he said, the Tocobagans were “aggressive people” known to enslave enemies. “Bottom line is that if the test is owning slaves, both Philippe and the Native Americans failed.”

Moving monuments

Over the last few years, the Tampa Bay area has removed monuments considered racially offensive from public spaces and renamed buildings. Here are some:

Memoria In Aeterna monument: Two Confederate soldiers and a 32-foot-tall obelisk made up the monument that stood outside the old Hillsborough County court house. It was moved to a private cemetery in 2017.

Cow Cavalry monument: Dedicated to those who provided cows to feed the Confederate Army, the square monument located on the old Plant City High School campus was adorned with a bronze carving of a cattleman. It was removed in June.

The Memoria in Aeterna Confederate monument that once stood in front of the old Hillsborough County Courthouse. 
[CHRIS URSO   |   Times (2017)]
The Memoria in Aeterna Confederate monument that once stood in front of the old Hillsborough County Courthouse. [CHRIS URSO | Times (2017)]

Confederate monument in Munn Park: A statue of a confederate soldier was removed from Lakeland’s Munn Park in 2018.

Robert E. Lee Elementary School: The Tampa school honoring the commander of the Confederate Army was renamed in 2018. It is now Tampa Heights Elementary Magnet School. The school was gutted by an electrical fire in 2017 but is scheduled to reopen this year.

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