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For Tampa's Confederate monument, racist history clouds claims of heritage

A statue titled "Memoria In Aeterna" is seen on the Hillsborough County Courthouse annex propertyTuesday, June 13, 2017 in Tampa. The statue,  dedicated to the honor of confederate soldiers and sailors, was originally installed on the southwest corner of Franklin and Lafayette Streets in 1911 by the Tampa chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederate States of America and was moved to its current location in 1952 following completion of the courthouse. CHRIS URSO   |   Times
A statue titled "Memoria In Aeterna" is seen on the Hillsborough County Courthouse annex propertyTuesday, June 13, 2017 in Tampa. The statue, dedicated to the honor of confederate soldiers and sailors, was originally installed on the southwest corner of Franklin and Lafayette Streets in 1911 by the Tampa chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederate States of America and was moved to its current location in 1952 following completion of the courthouse. CHRIS URSO | Times
Published Jun. 18, 2017

TAMPA — In the streets along Court House Square they sang Dixie and cheered as the veil was finally removed from the white marble obelisk. Necks craned from balconies along Franklin Street as people strained to catch a glimpse.

It was Feb. 8, 1911, and an estimated 5,000 people had flooded downtown Tampa, still a small port city, for the dedication of a Confederate monument.

According to news accounts from the day, various dignitaries paid tribute to the Confederate soldiers who had marched to defend the Old South then returned to build the New South from its ashes. They praised the generals who led them and the women who supported the cause from home.

But there were other sentiments expressed that day.

In remarks at the monument's dedication — a monument that its modern supporters insist doesn't symbolize the suppression of black Americans — the keynote speaker, state attorney Herbert S. Phillips, had this to say:

"The South stands ready to welcome all good citizens who seek to make their homes within her borders. But the South detests and despises all, it matters not from whence they came, who, in any manner, encourages social equality with an ignorant and inferior race."

• • •

The eternal conflict of Confederate symbols is that one man's nod to heritage is another man's reminder of oppression.

That conflict has come to Hillsborough County.

Commissioner Les Miller has called for the removal of the 106-year-old Confederate monument that now stands outside the old county courthouse in downtown Tampa, an administrative building that holds traffic court and conducts marriages.

Miller, a descendant of slaves, came of age when schools were still segregated in Tampa. As a University of South Florida student, he remembers a helplessness come over him as he passed the statue on the way to the downtown law library.

"When I became a county commissioner one of the things I said to myself was, 'I'm going to one day get that removed,' " Miller said. "The timing had to be right."

The moment for Miller arrived last month. Four Confederate memorials had just come down in New Orleans in parts of the city not far from where thousands of men and women were bought and sold into bondage. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's speech explaining why went viral and became a national address on race relations.

But opposition to Miller's proposal was swift.

A mailer circulated comparing Miller, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, to the Islamic State. Dozens of men and women filled the seats of a recent County Commission meeting holding signs saying, "Americans build monuments/We don't remove them."

"If this monument is removed, I, as a citizen of this county, will organize other like-minded citizens to stand in its place as well as over offices of this council," warned one of those residents, Donny McCurry of Riverview.

A debate on the future of the monument is expected at Wednesday's commission meeting. Commissioner Stacy White said he plans to propose a blanket ban on the removal of any of Hillsborough's war memorials.

"This is a part of history," White said.

• • •

"Handsome," the Tampa Morning Tribune remarked about the monument the day after its unveiling. And unique compared to others around Florida.

To the north faces a Confederate soldier; upright, armed, right foot forward heading toward battle. To the south, the soldier walks home-bound; humbled, his clothes tattered and gun falling to his side. A tower that points to the heavens stands between the two figures.

Its installment, the Tribune wrote, was "made possible through the zealous efforts of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy."

"Zealous'' may actually be an understatement.

In the years after the Civil War, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other Southern groups undertook extensive efforts to influence the post-war narrative and remake in defeat the image of the South.

Committees reviewed school textbooks to ensure deference to the Southern point-of-view, according to minutes from Daughters of the Confederacy conventions in the early 1900s. Campaigns persuaded governments to refer to the Civil War as the "War Between the States" and downplay slavery's role in the South's secession.

Known as the "Lost Cause" narrative, it sought to project a picturesque antebellum South, said William Lees, executive director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.

"That narrative is embedded in insidious ways throughout the South," said Lees, who catalogued Florida's Civil War memorials for his book, Recalling Deeds Immortal: Florida Monuments to the Civil War. "It may have started for innocent reasons but it became a very effective campaign and it included monuments."

The United Daughters of the Confederacy organized dozens of empathetic monuments throughout the South, including Florida, from the late 1880s through World War I. They can be found in public spaces in Bradenton, Brooksville and Lakeland.

The local chapter of the United Daughters raised $3,000 in 1910 to build the monument in Tampa. Hillsborough County donated the land on Franklin and Lafayette streets.

Its unveiling, marking the 50th anniversary of the South's secession from the Union, was such an event that kids were given the day off school. It was Tampa's first monument.

Dedication speeches praised the reunited country. But the prevailing lost cause narrative reverberated too, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the Tampa Bay History Center, "recasting not just the cause of the war, but the end of the war, making it where there is no loser."

Tampa Mayor D.B. McKay, for example, said the statue "will stand forever as a testimonial of our undying love for the cause that we of the South believe was right, and of our pride in the splendid achievements of the hosts who through those terrible years made records on land and on sea unparalleled in the history of the world."

• • •

Over the past two decades, Hillsborough has gradually distanced itself from Confederate symbols.

In 1997, county commissioners removed the Confederate flag from the Hillsborough County seal. In a compromise, they voted to hang a version of the flag in the county center.

Then commissioners voted in 2015 to remove that flag. Meanwhile, the county stopped honoring Southern Heritage Month, a decision in 2007 that prompted one angry citizen to plant a massive Confederate battle flag near Interstates 4 and 275.

More recently, the Hillsborough County School Board started a review of how to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School in east Tampa.

But the Confederate monument downtown had avoided similar scrutiny. Local historians and longtime black leaders could not remember debates about it. In fact, the same commissioners who removed the flag from the county seal unanimously approved a $4,000 restoration of the monument.

Tom Scott, who served on the County Commission and Tampa City Council, often as the only black member, said the political climate is different now. But he added that removing the monument won't solve the racial disparity in the county.

"It's understandable to not want those kinds of symbols that portray racism," Scott said. "But after removing the statue, we still have a problem if we're not addressing the systemic issues."

Miller said the debate is overdue.

"That monument and those flags stood for people that wanted to keep a segment of the country in bondage," Miller said. "You go into a courthouse for justice, and here stands a monument erected to those who didn't even look at you as a human being."

Advocates of Southern heritage said removing these symbols is a disservice to the dozens of local men who fought in the Civil War.

"If they believe any symbol of slavery should be eliminated because it's offensive there's a long list of things that need to go," said Lunelle McCallister, chair of monuments for the Florida division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. "Are we going to rename McKay Bay? When does it end?"

• • •

In 1911, Tampa was opening itself to the north — both to its visitors and its commerce — and touting its place in the nation's industrialization. The city celebrated the rolling of its one billionth cigar, according to a Tribune report, and the newspaper was habitually filled with pronouncements of new business in the port.

But Tampa held closely to Florida's roots as the third Southern state to secede.

The city observed Lee's birthday, and schoolchildren named trees after him. Much of the county's black population lived in the Scrub, an area founded by free slaves, or segregated communities with few amenities and poor conditions. The first hospital to treat black residents had just opened three years earlier.

"That tells you a lot of what you need to know about the black conditions in Tampa," said Fred Hearns, a retired director of community affairs for Tampa who now provides black history tours.

Against this backdrop, Herbert Phillips, the state's attorney for the 6th Judicial Circuit, delivered his keynote address to dedicate the Confederate monument.

"The south declares that a president who appoints a negro to an office within her borders engenders sectional bitterness," he said, "encourages lynchings, injures the negro, is an enemy of good government and a traitor to the Anglo-Saxon race."

Asked if Phillips' words changed his view of the monument, County Commissioner White said he hadn't heard them before and would have to study it before commenting. But he added: "I don't think that those types of sentiments would entirely encompass the dedication of the monument."

David McCallister, commander of the local chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy and husband to Lunelle, was more effusive.

"(Abraham) Lincoln had exactly the same thoughts," he said. "What do they think about Lincoln on the penny?"

• • •

The monument, like the south-facing soldier, is tattered these days. There are cracks throughout the base and chips in the marble men. The soldiers have been missing most of their guns for decades.

On his tour routes, Hearns often drives by the statue.

He explains for tourists the tower and the two soldiers, what they symbolize, the engravings that mark the start and end of the Civil War, the carving of the rebel flag that adorns the statue's west side.

"They're pretty silent when I give the history of that statue," he said. "Every time I go by a little chill goes through me.

"I know what it meant."

Follow Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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