City to create contextualization plan for confederate monuments

By Katie Garwood |

The St. Augustine city commission listens to public comment regarding a course of action on the confederate statues in town.

Rather than remove a Confederate monument in St. Augustine’s downtown plaza, St. Augustine city commissioners decided Monday night to keep the memorial to soldiers who died in the Civil War, but also add “context” to better explain the complex history surrounding it.

While the plan of how to add context to the monuments will take time, the goal is to provide a complete history of the Civil War. Removing the monument, commissioners said, would shroud an important part of history.

In approving the recommendation by St. Augustine City Manager John Regan to contextualize the monument, a five-to-seven-person advisory committee will be formed through a public application process confirmed by the commission. The committee will identify gaps in history, seek public input, recommend a contextualization and implementation plan and provide the cost and financing options of the plan.

The monument in the Plaza de la Constitucion is a memorial to Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. After white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the city’s plans to remove a memorial to Robert E. Lee, St. Paul AME Church pastor Ron Rawls called for the monuments to be removed in St. Augustine, as did those in other cities.

Though the city cannot vote to make changes to the University of Florida-owned Confederate General William Loring monument just west of the plaza, the commission reached a consensus to work with the UF board, which announced it was aware of the divide in the community and would act accordingly with the city.

Two commissioners, Roxanne Horvath and Leanna Freeman, said removing the monuments would cause further division in the city. Mayor Nancy Shaver and City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline said tearing down the monuments would create a gap in an important part of the city’s history, and with contextualization, they can be used as educational tools.

“This is not about being comfortable, keeping the monument,” Shaver said. “This is about being very uncomfortable in discovering what the context is around it. I tried, since this question came forward, to find history of what this city was like in 1860 or 1850 … That is a big blank spot in our history and we are the oldest city in the country and we have a responsibility to tell the whole story of who we are.”

Regan presented three options at the meeting: do nothing with the monuments, remove them or relocate them or contextualize them. At the podium, Regan held up a sheet of paper with the number six written on it, telling the commission and audience “you see a six and I see a nine” to demonstrate what he and his team have faced in making a decision on the fate of the monument.

“We’re both looking at the same thing but our orientation is what changes our perception,” Regan said. “This is the issue that I think I’ve been getting to that makes our monument difficult to reconcile.”

Regan said by choosing to contextualize the monument, the city can provide a more complete history, which “keeps us more in line with our vision to be an inclusive, diverse community,” adding that Ft. Myers is taking a similar approach.

“I think we have a chance to do something different in our community than what we’re seeing for people that are trying to reconcile these cultural views and lenses to do something great,” Regan said.

Just moving the monument would be costly – the price would start at $145,000 to relocate it, adding $15,000 for each intersection it passes through as well as the cost to for city archaeologists to examine the ground beneath it.

Regan said finding a place to move the monument had proven difficult as well. Despite these challenges, they wouldn’t preclude the city from moving them.

“If you say move it, we’ll find a way to make it financially work,” Regan said. “This is about making the right social decision.”

Doing absolutely nothing about the monuments, Regan said, “would be a tragic mistake.”

“We need to use this moment in our history to springboard efforts of social justice that are in fact taking place, and sometimes we don’t spend time talking about it,” Regan said.

In the past, the city’s made strides to right itself “on the path to social justice” for African-Americans, Regan said. Examples include the dedication of Robert B. Hayling Park, the 450th celebration’s efforts to share the city’s African-American history, the development of the Lincolnville Museum and renovations to the pool at the Willie Galimore Center.

Those at the meeting spoke on both sides of the argument, although speakers leaned more toward keeping the monuments. Some who spoke to remove them said the monuments sent the wrong message and alienated the African-American community.

“When we get out of line, we make them uncomfortable and cause division,” Rawls said. “But as long as they are comfy, we can all be one big undivided family. You can change the name from the slave market to the Plaza de la Constitucion, you can change the name from monument to memorial, but tonight, you either do what makes you comfortable or you will choose to stand on the right side of history.”

Others said they felt that the monuments were a crucial part of history, good or bad.

“It would be a desecration to remove a monument to war dead that many would consider sacrilege in this community,” said Hugh Washington, who spoke during time for public comment.

Though the city has come to an agreement on how to handle the monuments, the road forward will not be easy.

“We didn’t have one black resident or neighbor speak in favor of keeping [the monuments],” said Vice Mayor Todd Neville. “When we move forward with this, we have to keep that in mind and understand that that in itself is divisiveness.”

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