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What should we do with our own Confederate symbols in Tampa Bay?

A Confederate memorial sits near the entrance to the Hillsborough County Courthouse on Pierce Street in downtown Tampa.
A Confederate memorial sits near the entrance to the Hillsborough County Courthouse on Pierce Street in downtown Tampa.
Published Jul. 15, 2015

TAMPA — On Pierce Street downtown, there's a historic marker that commemorates Confederate soldiers and sailors.

In St. Petersburg, there's Dixie Hollins High School, a flash point for desegregation during the 1970s and still home of the Rebels.

On Tampa's Columbus Drive, there's Robert E. Lee Elementary School, a technology magnet whose mascot is Traveller, the Confederate general's horse.

"There are monuments and symbols like that all over the South," said Rodney Kite-Powell, a curator at the Tampa Bay History Center.

So what do we do with them?

Since last month's massacre in Charleston — when nine black worshipers were murdered in a historic church — debate has reignited over the Confederate battle flag. Last week, South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove it from Capitol grounds, and on Wednesday Hillsborough County commissioners will discuss what to do with a variation of the Confederate flag that hangs in the Frederick B. Karl County Center.

But the conversation has a deeper level: Where does history end and revisionism begin? How does a nation have a conversation about race when numerous sites — like Lee Elementary, or the 30-by-60 foot Confederate flag near the Interstate 75/Interstate 4 junction — remind people daily of a war fought in large part to defend slavery?

Some say museums and education are the best course of action. Others insist that Southern heritage has been slandered throughout the debate.

"These things are important when there are symbols that denigrate a particular part of the population that are left up out of complacency or because that's how we've always done things," said University of South Florida historian Ray Arsenault.

"It can be very, very hurtful."

• • •

Arsenault is one of many calling for a re-examination of the battle flag and other symbols.

"My thing with the flags is to put them in a museum," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, "so they can be just what they are: a piece of history."

Miller raised the issue of removing the flag from Hillsborough County's headquarters. Since that time, he has received phone calls from constituents — not just about the flag, but about the monument on Pierce Street.

"It's not just African Americans," he said. "There are others — who are not black — who understand what it means."

But that's where the argument gets stuck. How does a nation scrub its history?

"We're not saying erase history," said Natasha Goodley of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP. "We're saying erase the symbols of everyday life."

Children shouldn't have to go to a school named after Robert E. Lee, Goodley said. That exposure continues to be a reminder of discrimination and hatred. Even if it wasn't intended that way.

"There are so many names," Goodley said, "and we have to name it after a Confederate soldier who fought to keep my family as slaves?

"Really?"

• • •

Maybe that's the problem. There are so many names, so many symbols, so many ancient schisms that evoke pain.

"There's hardly anything you can look at that wasn't involved in some conflict," Kite-Powell said. "Look at the $20 with Andrew Jackson, a president who was incredibly popular, but who would now be locked up in jail. His policies pushed hundreds of thousands if not millions of (Indians) off their land."

The Christopher Columbus statue on Bayshore Boulevard is another good example, he said.

"For every member of the Italian club who would look at the Columbus statue and see it as something to be revered, you can find somebody of native birth who despises it."

• • •

Since Charleston, men, women and children have gathered in parking lots and cheered on grassy lawns for the Confederate battle flag. They chant the mantra — "Heritage, not hate" — and insist the flag does not equal racism.

Phil Walters of the Judah P. Benjamin Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is among them. He characterized the anti-Confederate movement as "intellectually dishonest," and believes the South has come under fire for a mindset the entire nation shared at one point.

"If you just across the board rip something away from people, is that not going to breed resentment?" Walters asked. "You can pass the laws and bully it through, but does it really solve anything?"

Besides, he added, "you wanna talk institutional racism, look at the American flag."

Kite-Powell acknowledged that the South tends to carry the weight of slavery, which might explain the backlash over symbols. But he stressed the difference between the American flag and the battle flag.

In modern times, "you don't see someone waving the American flag trying to invoke a white supremacist movement," he said.

Contact Zack Peterson at zpeterson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368. Follow @zackpeterson918.