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Hillsborough County Commission votes to remove Confederate flag

TAMPA — In a symbolic but surprising show of unanimity before a divided crowd, the Hillsborough County Commission voted 7-0 on Wednesday to remove the Confederate flag that has hung in the county government center for the past two decades.

The vote followed an emotional debate about the emblem, which for some represents Southern pride but for others, especially black Americans, stands as a painful reminder of the nation's racist history.

The flag was unceremoniously taken down after the Frederick B. Karl County Center closed on Wednesday and it will be handed over to the Tampa Bay History Center by noon today. Four other flags from Spain, France, Great Britain and the United States — all the national flags that have flown over Hillsborough County at one time or another — will also be moved.

The charge to remove the flag was led by Commissioner Les Miller, the board's lone black member, who began the debate Wednesday by invoking the flag's racist roots.

He read from an article written by a creator of the banner, who referred to it as "the white man flag" intended to represent the "supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race."

The issue of the Confederate flag intensified here and nationally after the racially motivated shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine dead. Other Confederate flags have since been removed around the country, most notably from the South Carolina capitol grounds.

The flag is the third and final banner adopted by the Confederacy. It's not the well-known Confederate battle flag but it does contain the familiar red, white and blue Southern cross in the upper left corner. The rest is white with a red vertical stripe. It's sometimes called the "blood-stained banner."

It was put in the county building two decades ago. Then, a much more divided board voted 4-3 to remove the Confederate flag from the county seal. The display in the county center was offered as a compromise.

Since then, many had forgotten the flag was there. It hung above the security desk on the first floor, blocked by the second floor walkways. It could not be easily seen by the hundreds of county workers who shuffled in and out of the building every day.

Miller himself said he didn't know the flag was there until after the mass shooting June 17 in Charleston.

Nevertheless, 21 years after it was hung, all seven commissioners, five Republicans and two Democrats, voted to take the flag down.

"Let's be honest, most people, including myself, didn't realize the flag was displayed here," Commissioner Ken Hagan said. "But I cannot ignore that while the Confederate flag represents heritage to some, it represents oppression, abuse and enslavement to others."

It was not readily clear the debate would end with a unanimous vote. Commissioner Stacy White passionately opposed the Confederate flag's removal, insisting it was "hysteria" and "political correctness" gone awry.

"Every Confederate symbol on this planet can be eliminated and it won't do a thing to stop a heart of hatred," White said.

He offered a compromise to replace the flag with the Confederacy's official seal — a picture of President George Washington on a white horse — but that was rejected. He then asked the board to put it to referendum for voters to decide, but that motion failed as well.

In defeat, White surprised everyone when he said he would ultimately support Miller because the flag was going to be moved to the history center instead of being discarded.

Miller was visibly moved by White's gesture to vote for final passage and grew emotional as he gave the final remarks.

"This flag to me hurts," Miller said through tears. "It's going to history, it's going to a place where people can go there and read about all the Confederate flags and what it means to them."

Speakers from the public were decidedly more split than the board and fell on both sides of the Confederate flag controversy.

"I was born and raised in a segregated community," Eddie Adams Jr. told the board. "I didn't even know that flag had a history other than pain, heartache and sorrow."

Yvette Maldonado countered that each of the flags flying in the government center stands for a piece of local history.

"They're here as a historical reference," Maldonado said. "All five flags represent periods of Florida's history."

More people stood to echo Maldonado's sentiments, recalling their Confederate bloodlines and Florida's place in the South.

But in the end, commissioners had the final say and they left little doubt where they stood as a body.

"There was bloodshed on both sides of (the Civil War), but the bottom line is it's been 150 years, the war is over and we move on," Commissioner Victor Crist said.

He added: "In all sincerity, it's time."

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

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