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Majority of Hillsborough commissioners now support moving Tampa's Confederate statue

“It has to go,” says County Commissioner Les Miller of the statue.
“It has to go,” says County Commissioner Les Miller of the statue.
Published Jul. 19, 2017

TAMPA — As they prepare to vote again today on the fate of Tampa's Confederate monument, a majority of Hillsborough County commissioners now say they support removing it from its downtown location.

Still to be decided is where to put it. But one potential hurdle, the cost of relocating the statue, has been taken care of: A prominent Tampa lawyer has volunteered to cover those expenses, likely to top $100,000.

If the votes hold, commissioners would reverse a 4-3 decision from just last month to keep the 106-year-old monument, called Memoria en Aeterna, outside the old county courthouse.

Commissioners "needed time to go out and hear what people thought was the best decision for the community and to unify the community," said Commissioner Sandy Murman. Murman told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday she supports moving the statue after voting against it in June.

Commissioner Victor Crist also has changed positions and now wants to move the monument, but he can't attend today's meeting. Crist, Murman and Commissioner Stacy White have worked separately behind the scenes in recent weeks to secure a new location.

After speaking with Crist, a private cemetery in Lutz has agreed to put the statue on its 12-acre grounds. Murman said she may have a couple of options as well that are "secure and accessible," though neither were locked down as of Tuesday evening.

White's office did not respond to a request for comment. Commissioner Ken Hagan, the fourth vote against removal, did not speak during debate and has not publicly commented since.

It is possible commissioners could vote today to remove the monument without determining a destination, though Murman was optimistic it could be finalized by the end of the meeting.

Supporters of the Confederate monument declared victory last month when commissioners narrowly voted against moving it. Dozens of residents weighed in, followed by more than an hour of contentious debate by commissioners.

But after the July Fourth holiday, the tide started to turn. Commissioner Les Miller announced he would demand another vote, and Crist acknowledged he was willing to consider relocating the statue.

For Murman, her position started to shift after breakfast with Tampa lawyer Tom Scarritt in Hyde Park.

At that meeting, Scarritt offered to raise the money to remove the monument.

"I choked on my food," Murman said.

Scarritt said he will put up some of his own money and will also ask for contributions, including from the local professional sports teams. The Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Buccaneers released statements in recent weeks in favor of removal.

As a lawyer, Scarritt said he has passed the statue outside the old courthouse for 34 years and "I just don't think it's appropriate there." But as a student of Southern history at Sewanee: University of the South in Tennessee, he said he also didn't appreciate crews in masks removing a New Orleans Confederate statue in the dead of the night.

"Hillsborough can be a model for the rest of the Southeast depending on how we handle this," Scarritt said. "If people focus on working together to come up with a solution instead of focusing on the problem, that's how you start to change hearts."

The county is likely to ask an outside company to X-ray the statue to determine the best way to move the marble structure, and to estimate the cost.

A previous estimate said it would be between $90,000 and $130,000. But that did not include the expense of shoring up a new site. County Administrator Mike Merrill said the county would have to pay whatever Scarritt cannot raise.

"Without knowing how much could be raised, the board has to recognize that if they move it there's going to be a cost," he said. "Any help will be a good thing.''

If approved, removal is likely several months away.

The county can only give away surplus property to a nonprofit, Merrill said.

The local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the nonprofit that raised $3,000 to erect the monument in 1911, tentatively agreed in June to take back the monument if commissioners voted to move it, Merrill said Tuesday. However, the organization doesn't have the means to store it or move it, he said.

Miller has advocated storing it until the Daughters chapter can find a new location for it.

"It has to go," Miller said Tuesday, standing alongside other local politicians at a rally calling for removal. "This is not the proper place for it."

Leaders in the black and religious communities have said the Confederate monument is a reminder of the South's fight to preserve slavery. Many have quoted then-State Attorney Herbert Phillips, who on the day of the dedication in 1911 called African-Americans an "ignorant and inferior race."

According to a transcript of the speech in the next day's Tampa Morning Tribune, Phillips said, "The south declares that a president who appoints a negro to an office within her borders engenders sectional bitterness, encourages lynchings, injures the negro, is an enemy of good government and a traitor to the Anglo-Saxon race."

But proponents of keeping the monument in downtown Tampa have accused the other side of attempting to erase history. The statue — of two soldiers, one heading into war and another, southbound, returning from battle in a tattered uniform — is a tribute to Confederate veterans, they say.

More than 5,000 people attended the unveiling of the monument when Tampa was still a small port city. It's Tampa's oldest public statue.

The monument was moved to outside the old county courthouse in 1952. The building is now an office that also houses traffic court and conducts weddings.

"We'll see what happens. I hope it goes smooth," Murman said on the eve of today's vote. "I want the community to all work together and heal together."

Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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