“This former plantation, as a historic state park, as a memorial to the enslaved African people who were on this land and beyond, as an apology to them and their descendants, is dedicated to the legacy of the seismic catastrophe of American slavery. This space marks a method of commerce, ownership and inhumanity that will forever haunt the spirit of a ‘free’ America. This space has been reclaimed to mark a place of possible transformative healing, where the enslaved becomes free, the shamed becomes washed and faith is restored in the universal sovereignty of human rights.”
The above text is my imagined rewrite of the main side of an historical marker currently on public display at the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at the Gamble Plantation Historic Park in Ellenton. The original marker read more as a whitewashed brochure designed for Florida tourism, wedding planners and Make America Great Again hardliners. There is no mention that this sugarcane plantation had upward of 200 enslaved people at one point or that they built the mansion. The marker focuses more on the mansion as an “outstanding example of ante-bellum construction and stands today as a monument to pioneer ingenuity and craftsmanship” than on what it actually was: a slave plantation and a constitutional contradiction.
The other side of the marker talks about the very brief residence of the fugitive Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin at the end of the Civil War, before his eventual escape to Sarasota en route to Europe. It concludes with a mention of how in 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy bought the decaying plantation, making it a memorial to Benjamin, before giving it to the state of Florida.
But where are the memorials to the slaves? Where are their markers? Where are their names?
Many of the facts and stories of the enslaved at the Gamble Plantation have been forever lost. The pain, the songs, the laughter, the tears, the contempt, the failed escapes, the resistance, the suicides, the dreams, the nightmares, the rapes, the high blood pressure, the truncated love affairs, the humanity lost in the between spaces of glorious ante-bellum architecture, failed Reconstruction, and the mythical memories of a southbound underground escape of a high-ranking Confederate official.
Where are the voices of many who may have died in the hot summer sun or from work-related injuries or from complicated childbirth? More importantly, where is the space of redemption on a plantation that grows and cultivates in plain sight America’s most consumed crop: white supremacy and anti-black racism?
Over the last 20 years, as an artist and writer, I have confronted Confederate iconography as it relates to white power, visual terrorism and the African American experience. From recoloring Confederate flags in SoHo and Harlem, hanging one in Gettysburg, and burning it at the state capitol in South Carolina in 2015, I have tried to respond to a public landscape that embraced the legitimacy of the Confederacy and the suppression of American slavery. Most recently I have organized a petition to the State of Florida to repeal the statutes protecting the Confederate flag and state-sanctioned Confederate holidays, and rename and recontextualize the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park.
While researching for the petition, I decided to visit the Gamble Plantation located in Ellenton. Being from Detroit, I had never been to a plantation before or even wanted to, and did not know what to expect. However, I knew I did not want to return to the complicated feelings of anger and betrayal, I had as a child watching Roots for the first time in the ’70s.
As I approached the plantation off the main street, I could see the White House-looking mansion at the end of a winding road, framed in a garden of weepy willows and a few palm trees. After walking around, reading the markers, viewing the various stone monuments to Confederate and World War I veterans, and seeing the stand-alone building that housed the Florida headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), I started to feel like I was in a fantasy Confederate sanctuary designed to protect phantom attitudes, rights and privileges on the brink of extinction.
I can totally see why some white people might want to get married here: the sunlight is stunning, the vegetation is rich, the mansion is movie set quality and there is almost no evidence that slavery even happened here. As it is now, there is absolutely no reason for black people to come here, even by mistake. Maybe that is the point. And there lies the deep irony of a segregated, yet braided knot of American dreams and nightmares.
I went over to the picnic tables and started to re-imagine this former plantation as a memorial to the enslaved black people who were here. I imagined the UDC building behind me becoming Florida Headquarters of the United Descendants of African Slaves, and how they would organize programs for MLK Day, Black History Month, and do a big event on Juneteenth. In front of the mansion I would have a black obelisk monument inscribed in gold with all of the names of the last slaves on record who passed through the plantation in 1860. Behind the mansion, where sugarcane once grew and slaves once worked, there would be a gigantic flagpole springing from a fountain. And on the pole would be a giant square Confederate Battle flag, recolored red, black and green, the colors of Black Liberation, in the spirit that Black Life continues to be a daily battle. And near this flag monument there would be a marker that simply states: From the soil of bondage, reign of hope and light of justice will rise the fruits and flags of freedom.
If America really wants to move forward as a nation, we must finally address the horrific legacy and collateral appendages of American slavery. We must do this, first by pushing back on police brutality and mass incarceration, which both are historically tied to slavery. We must continue to de-memorialize Confederate symbols, flags and monuments, de-romanticize slave plantations and re-critique notions of antebellum Southern heritage, while making space for long overdue national apology for slavery, statewide and federally. Also we need to move to create new memorials, rituals and spaces for transformative healing and recurring reflections that celebrate liberty and justice going forward.
While I hope the current political climate, petitions and corrective lawmaking help to change Confederate worship in Florida, and start deep conversations around the culture of white supremacy and propriety of South Heritage, it is the re-imagined plantation as a slave memorial that gives me a sense of historical justice, and 20/20 vision of things to come.
John Sims, a Sarasota-based conceptual artist, writer and activist, creates media and curatorial projects informed by mathematics, design, the politics of white supremacy, sacred symbols/anniversaries and poetic/political text. This fall he will be in residency at the Ringling Museum, where he will create a performance connecting his work on the coronavirus, police brutality and Confederate iconography. Follow him at johnsimsprojects.com and @johnsimsproject.