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Hillsborough Commissioners vote to keep Confederate monument in downtown Tampa

A statue titled "Memoria In Aeterna" is seen on the Hillsborough County Courthouse annex property 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. 22, 2017

TAMPA — As some southern communities move to erase Confederate symbols from their public spaces, one prominently on display in Tampa will stay where it is.

After three hours of contentious debate, Hillsborough County commissioners voted 4-3 on Wednesday to keep a Confederate monument outside the old county courthouse in downtown Tampa.

Commissioners Victor Crist, Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman and Stacy White, all Republicans, were in the majority. The board's other Republican, Commissioner Al Higginbotham, joined Democrats Pat Kemp and Les Miller in advocating for its removal.

Instead of moving the monument, the prevailing commissioners want to paint a 10-foot high mural behind it that will pay homage to the county's diversity. They may also start an education program to address what Murman described as a racism problem in the community.

"No matter what we do today, if we don't look for consensus, there's going to be hatred and anger that could last for decades," said Crist, who suggested the mural.

The idea did not appear to appease those wishing to see the monument moved. Nevertheless, it was billed as a compromise and Crist, Hagan, Murman and White — all of whom face re-election next year — quickly rallied around it.

After the vote, Miller, the county's lone black commissioner and the leading force behind the statue's removal, called the mural "awkward."

"It will continue to be divisive in this community," Miller said. "More now than ever before."

The 2015 mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C., brought new attention to Confederate symbols in the south. Dylann Roof, who killed nine black men and women in the massacre, was a white supremacist who posed with Confederate symbols.

While the vast majority of Confederate flags and monuments on display in the south remain untouched and uncontested, the few instances when government bodies and officials have debated these symbols has often resulted in removal.

Most notably, South Carolina officials removed the Confederate flag from the state's capitol in the aftermath of the mass shooting. Hillsborough County officials also voted unanimously to remove a Confederate flag from the county center at that time.

The recent focus has shifted to monuments. On Tuesday, Orlando officials removed a Confederate monument and New Orleans last month took down several.

But Hillsborough County, Miller said, "continues to have a Confederate monument sitting on its courthouse property."

"It's a slap in the face," he said. "It shows that we haven't come that far."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the monument's continued presence downtown will hold the city back.

"As we look to compete on a global stage, having those reminders of a dark chapter in our history is not helpful," he said.

Tampa's Confederate monument, called Memoria In Aeterna, was built in 1911 with funds raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Its dedication drew 5,000 people when Tampa was still a small port city. School was canceled so children could attend.

The monument's design — a north facing Confederate soldier heading to war, another walking south toward home in a tattered uniform and a marble obelisk between them — was celebrated as a fitting tribute to the men who fought for the Southern cause.

But during that event, the keynote speaker, State Attorney Herbert Phillips, called black Americans "an ignorant and inferior race.'' He said those who help them get jobs in the federal government were "an enemy of good government and a traitor to the Anglo-Saxon race."

At Wednesday's commission debate, speakers calling for the statue's removal outnumbered those who wanted it to remain by a ratio of two-to-one. Among them were local civil rights icon Clarence Fort, who organized sit-ins at a Tampa Woolworth's in 1960, and Hillsborough County NAACP President Bennie Smalls.

Many pointed to Phillips' comments as a demonstration of the monument's oppressive roots.

"I should not have to be reminded on my dime, on my dollar, that my ancestors were treated sub-human," said community activist Michelle Patty.

But opponents of removal, many in Confederate garb and holding signs that said, "Americans build monuments/We don't remove them," said the statue was an homage to their heritage. They played videos that showed memorials of other wars defaced by protestors and an interview of Condoleezza Rice, the first female African-American Secretary of State, speaking against destroying these memorials.

"Confederate history is American history," said Daniel Nelson of Lithia. "God bless Dixie."

The debate may soon shift to the Hillsborough County School Board, where some people want to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary school, which is 57 percent black.

School board member Tamara Shamburg said she was "deeply disappointed" by Wednesday's decision

"This was a chance to make a difference and to promote healing in the community," Shamburg said. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen."

In addition to voting against removal, commissioners advanced a proposal to protect all Hillsborough war memorials from removal by future commissions.

"Please don't kick these members of the military while they are down," White said. "They've suffered plenty. Let them rest in peace."

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

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