A change indeed is coming for Confederate iconography. The Stonewall Jackson statue in Richmond, Va., has come down, Mississippi has changed its state flag so it no longer bears the cross of the Confederate battle flag, the Department of Defense has banned Confederate battle flags at military installations, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation is calling for removal of Confederate monuments, unless they “foster recognition of the reality of our painful past and invite reconciliation for the present and the future.”
Of course, there has been pushback, starting with President Donald Trump, who now considers the rebel flag a proud symbol of the South and has threatened to veto the defense bill if Confederate names are removed from military bases.
But right here in Florida we have plenty of Confederate crow to chew on — and some updates.
I had wondered what had happened to the Judah P. Benjamin memorial obelisk and marker, which I recently wrote about in Perspective. It was, in fact, removed by Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin after he received a complaint from a jogger visiting from out of town. The marker read: “Near This Spot On, June 23, 1865, Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State, For The Confederacy, Set Sail for a Foreign Land.” I commend the city manager’s leadership and swift action in taking down a marker that commemorated a traitor to the United States, a high official in the Confederacy who was fleeing justice when he passed through Gamble Mansion and Sarasota.
Too bad my applause does not extend to the Florida Legislature. Let me tell you why. I’m a conceptual artist, and in Florida more than 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.
In 2007, I was in a group exhibition in Tallahassee at the now-defunct Brogan Museum, featuring my installation, “The Proper Way to Hang A Confederate Flag.” The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) were not happy about my hanging their beloved flag from a 13-foot gallows, and so they protested my work, as they had done a few years before at my show in Gettysburg. This time the “Sons” upped their game and came armed with a Florida Statute, Chapter 256.051, which states:
“It shall also be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to mutilate, deface, defile or contemptuously abuse the flag or emblem of Florida or the flag or emblem of the Confederate states by any act whatever.”
Unbelievable. Written in 1961, a century after the start of the Civil War and a few years before the Voting Rights Act of 1964, this shows how the Confederate flag got more protection than the votes of Black people. Know what is even more mind-twisting? This statute is still on the books.
Also on Florida’s books are the Confederate Memorial Day on April 26 and the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. In 2017, state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, filed Senate Bill 224, which would have ended recognition of these holidays. But the bill died in committee. Now, I see why the United Daughters of the Confederacy gifted the Gamble Mansion and Plantation to the State of Florida in 1925, in memory of the Confederate Judah P. Benjamin, because they knew the memories and property would be in great hands with a political system and culture bent on preserving as much of the Confederacy as possible — spiritually and symbolically. In 1970, the Gamble Mansion and Plantation, then as a state park, applied for historic space status at the National Registry. In their application, the “Statement of Signification” section began with:
“This lovely antebellum mansion is the only Confederate shrine in the State, as well as the oldest building on the west coast of Florida. The mansion is designated the Judah P. Benjamin Memorial because of its connection with a dramatic episode in the last days of the Civil War. In another sense, it is a memorial to a way of life and a system of economy that were swept away by that war.”
Unbelievable. Slave plantations should be a source of collective shame and sorrow that we all as Americans should bear, a historic source of healing, not a space to have a Gone With The Wind moment, or weddings, or picnics, or treasure hunts for the missing slave quarters. And the idea that a former slave plantation, as a shrine, as a state park, is being used to memorialize Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate secretary of state, the “brains of the Confederacy,” with taxpayers’ funds, with descendants of African slaves’ tax dollars, is despicable, pathological and reflects a serious breach of moral accountability.
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If Florida aims to be intelligent in mind and moral in heart, then it must move beyond Civil War, a romanticized Confederacy and whitewashed ideas of Southern heritage. There is a place for Confederate history — cemeteries, museums and neutral-based historical markers, just like there is a place for plantations, KKK memorabilia, white-only drinking fountains and restrooms — as a cautionary tale and symbols of what we did and should never do again.
If we as a state and as a nation want to move forward together in a spirit of healing, community and respect, we must confront and redress the symbols, laws and memorials that have facilitated a culture of segregation, racism and white supremacy.
With this in mind, we must petition the State of Florida to repeal the statutes protecting Confederate symbols and flags, repeal the state-sanctioned Confederate holidays and rename and recontextualize the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park out of recognition of the horrific legacy of American slavery and the journey toward a more inclusive and socially just society.
John Sims, a Sarasota-based conceptual artist, writer and activist, creates art and curatorial projects spanning the areas of installation, performance, text, music, film and large-scale activism. For 20 years he has been working on the forefront of contemporary mathematical art and leading the national pushback on Confederate iconography. See his website www.johnsimsprojects.com and follow him at @Johnsimsproject.