The protest pandemic inspired by the gruesome death of George Floyd has proven to be a powerful moment of reckoning. First, there was a massive protest in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter demonstrations here in the United States as well as in nations abroad from England to Israel, calling for an end to police brutality and white supremacy. Now the protest pandemic has expanded to include the flags, symbols and monuments of the Confederacy. The Marines, NASCAR and NCAA have banned the Confederate battle flag. And many Confederate monuments and statues are coming down all over the country. A change is coming, indeed.
In Florida, over 20 years ago, I began Recoloration Proclamation, a project that confronts Confederate iconography as symbols of visual terrorism and white supremacy in the context of African American culture. The project which has been all over the country features recolored Confederate flags, a noose hanging installation I did in Gettysburg, a 13 southern states Confederate flag funeral, a play, a documentary short, the music project AfroDixieRemixes, the annual Burn and Bury Confederate Flag Memorial and the outside performance of The Proper Way to Hang to a Confederate Flag at Ohio University. So, I am glad to witness the Confederate flags and monuments coming down, especially that bigly Confederate flag that was flying over Interstate 4 near Tampa. I hope this removal is permanent.
These recent events and related conversations got me thinking about what memorials and monuments right in Florida might need some rethinking and replacing. Then I remembered that many years ago, I had run into a curious historic marker in Sarasota, which commemorated the escape of the Secretary of State of the Confederacy after the Civil War, and that he was the “Brains of the Confederacy.” I remember being a bit shocked by this sign, the language, and the idea that I might be living in a city with serious confederate connections. So I added the marker to my list of things I would address in the future.
Well, that future is here. So very recently I revisited the Sarasota marker, which was sponsored by the Sarasota County Historical Commission in 2000, hidden in plain sight. One side of it stated that Judah Phillip Benjamin, a Yale educated lawyer, became a U.S. senator from Louisiana from 1853-61. For the Confederate government, he was first appointed the attorney general, then later secretary of war, and four months later, the secretary of state. The other side of the marker says that after the fall of the Confederate, Benjamin fled south to Florida, going through Tampa on his way to Gamble Mansion in Ellenton. From there he headed to Sarasota where he departed from the country on a boat.
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Off to the side of the sign, there is a small truncated obelisk monument with stone benches on each side. According to the website, Sarasota History Alive, it was sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and unveiled in Sarasota in 1942 with then-Gov. Spessard L. Holland in attendance. On it reads: “Near This Spot On, June 23, 1865, Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State, For The Confederacy, Set Sail for a Foreign Land.”
I decided to take a seat and reflect. So many questions. What am I to think? Am I to be happy that the secretary of state of the Confederacy escaped? And why does the language in the marker present Benjamin as a hero? Is he really someone who deserves such notice? I wonder if there is a signage installation on the coast of some European country marking the departure of some high-ranking Nazi to some South American country, and what the world would say to that.
A week later, I returned to the Confederate marker to take better photos, and to my astonishment I found it and the side piece monument gone. Whether due to the roundabout construction or complaints or the threat of vandalism or an incredibly sensitive understanding that Black Lives Matter, I congratulate this removal and hope it is permanent.
The language, markers, and monuments that we render and support say something about our values and sense of community respect. And sometimes there is a need to reset, rewrite and re-create as community values change. This includes laws, speech, and yes, monuments. As we move through this historic time of change, I applaud the recent courage and action to address the racism and white supremacy in our symbols and public spaces that divide our country. Maybe we can continue the process by “redressing” the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, right here in Florida, and his other memorials throughout the American South and beyond.
John Sims, a Detroit native, conceptual artist, writer, activist creates art and curatorial projects spanning the areas of installation, performance, text, music, film, and large-scale activism, informed by mathematics, design, the politics of white supremacy, sacred symbols/anniversaries, and poetic/political text. For 20 years he has been working on the forefront of contemporary mathematical art and leading the national pushback on Confederate iconography. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, NBC News, USA Today, NPR, The Guardian, ThinkProgress, Al Jazeera, Art in America, Sculpture, Science News, Nature and Scientific American. He has written for CNN, Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, Guernica Magazine, and The Rumpus and TheGrio. See his website www.johnsimsprojects.com and follow him at @Johnsimsproject.