Checkered Past


by Stella Katsipoutis // photos by Rob Futrell

Like a scar rising from the flesh, the bronze silhouette of a Confederate soldier emerges from the center of Hemming Park in Downtown Jacksonville. Resting atop his 62-foot perch, he grips his rifle as he peers out from beneath his cap directly into the windows of City Hall. The 118-year-old monument has become so deeply embedded in the city’s identity that nary a passerby bats an eyelash in recognition of his presence. The story he tells is drowned amid the rallying cries, “Black lives matter,” and “All lives matter.” And just as any bodily scar left behind from a trying past has the power to incite both pride and pain in the heart of its wearer, so he stands amid a racially charged modern atmosphere, a steadfast reminder of the Old South. For those who are aware of the statue’s provenance, one question begs to be answered: Should Jacksonville continue wearing this and other symbols as a badge of honor, or is it a scarlet letter that must be removed?

The Confederate Monument in Hemming Park was donated by Civil War veteran Charles C. Hemming and erected in 1898, 33 years after the war ended, in honor of Florida’s soldiers. It is but one of many commemorative tributes to the Confederacy that are scattered throughout the city—tributes that, through the eyes of a newcomer or of a longtime resident who has become desensitized to its history, are fairly easy to overlook. When your senses are awakened to their existence, however, you begin to take notice of them everywhere. Eyes are drawn to the Monument to the Women of the Confederacy in Confederate Park. Skin tingles as you walk past military sites like Camp Milton Historic Preserve and Yellow Bluff Fort. Ears perk up when you hear the names of Confederate generals, like Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest, being used in reference to local high schools.

“There is a certain symbolism that comes with [historic] art that has to be carefully considered when it’s in a public place,” says author and historian Wayne Wood, who also serves as a board member for The Jacksonville Historical Society. “It’s an interesting conflict in the South that we’re proud of our heroes and the people who fought for our homeland, and, at the same time, one of the forces they fought for was slavery, which is not acceptable in any form or condition.”

While many Confederate monuments and dedications reflect a period in the late 19th and 20th centuries when both Northern and Southern cities were paying homage to Civil War veterans, the mixed emotions they stir up in our society today have made these testimonials a point of contention in the South time and again. In December of 2013, the Duval County School Board was a topic of national discussion when it unanimously voted to rename Nathan B. Forrest High School due to its namesake’s background as a slave owner and trader, a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan, and a possible participant in the Pillow Massacre, which resulted in the mass killing of African-American Union troops.

"I witnessed and joined the movement to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School,” says Chevara Orrin, a local activist who advocates on the behalf of marginalized people. “Earlier this year, I had a conversation with a respected community leader who served on the school board when they voted to keep the name. ‘That’s what the students wanted,’ she insisted. We are a community that has failed to face its history with authenticity or truth. I can’t imagine that if black students and parents understood the heinous history of the Confederacy, they would opt to honor the name of a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. ”

Being an institution with a predominantly black student population, the school deemed the moniker insensitive and repositioned itself as Westside High School in 2014.

On the other side of the coin, last April the Hemming memorial made headlines when the renderings for the park’s expansion failed to include the statue of the Confederate soldier. Jacksonville officials were inundated with complaints from local residents, who were vexed by the idea that the monument might be torn down. Their concerns were put to rest when city leaders confirmed that the exclusion of the sculpture from the blueprint was simply an oversight. Clearly, these testaments to a complex history have an equally nebulous meaning among individuals today, and they raise questions that, for many, are difficult to grapple with.

“What seemed true from the facts years ago has a different relevance to modern culture,” says Wood. “The question that’s going on locally as well as nationally is, in light of modern culture and sensitivities, should those monuments be left in public?”

Emily Lisska, the executive director of The Jacksonville Historical Society, has received­ phone calls from locals who fervently express their wishes for the city’s Confederate sculptures to be torn down because of their divisive nature. Handling these passionate appeals is neither easy nor clear-cut, but her response echoes the sentiments of many historians and others who support the preservation of the South’s memorials to the Confederacy:

emily-lisska“These monuments represent a piece of history,” says Lisska. “It may be history that someone judges good, someone else judges bad, someone else judges ugly, but it’s a piece of history. It’s our mission [at the Jacksonville Historical Society] to save history. It doesn’t mean that we would always come down on the side of, ‘No, you should never tear this monument down.’ It’s issue by issue and votes are taken, keeping in mind that we have an overall mission to protect our city’s history, to save it, to share it, and to document it as well.”

The argument for keeping the Confederate legacy alive through these structures and artifacts is a difficult pill to swallow for those who are slighted by the painful realities the monuments represent. But Joel McEachin, city planner supervisor for the City of Jacksonville’s Historic Preservation Section, explains the perspective from the other side of the fence. “The purpose in preserving such cultural resources that may be controversial in nature is not necessarily to glorify certain parts of our past, but to respect and acknowledge the rich and diverse texture and layers that constitute our collective history.”

In order to understand these layers and why these relics still exist today, historians say, it is critical to view them within their historical context and through the eyes of those who built them: “They were trying to keep this idea of patriotism and freedom alive because, in many cases, the Confederates didn’t view themselves as what people might label as treasonous,” says James Smith, adjunct professor in the University of North Florida’s history department.

“They were fighting against the Union and, in their mind, they were practicing patriotism and what the founders of America had been fighting for: the freedom against tyranny and to be able to do what you want to do. Slavery wasn’t the issue in their minds; it was their way of life. What a lot of these monuments are doing is celebrating the patriotism of these men, who in many cases weren’t wealthy planters; they were men who were coming off the fields or coming in from small farms and towns, who were fighting for these principles of freedom and for a certain way of life.”

And then there is the case of the physical landmarks we have here in town where some of the most significant events in Southern history occurred. If we begin to tear down Confederate monuments, proponents of the statues argue, what do we do about these sites? For example, originally named Dignan Park, what is now known as Confederate Park in Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood was so renamed because of the gathering of more than 8,000 Confederate veterans that took place there for the 24th annual United Confederate Veterans reunion in May of 1914. One year after the reunion, the Monument to the Women of the Confederacy was erected in that same location. Protected by Florida State Parks, Camp Melton in West Jacksonville and Yellow Bluff Fort in North Jacksonville also hold ghosts of the Civil War. And so, one must ask: What would become of these memory-laden grounds if every remnant of the Confederacy were to be erased?

“Our streets [in Jacksonville] are like the CliffsNotes for early Florida history,” says Lisska, “and it’s going to be tougher to appreciate the stories if we start removing the vestiges and the pieces of those stories, the memorials to those meaningful events. If we hide any sins of the past, how does that assist people in today’s world understanding the missteps that are made in history? Where do we draw the line? Sharing those stories make more of a difference in society than not sharing the stories, and sometimes it takes a monument to do that.”

Tearing down is purging, but it won’t change the history. The reminders of the past invite us to learn more and dig into what the realities were then, not what some prefer now,” says Walker Blanton, professor of history at Jacksonville University.

While conserving whatever traces are left of our past is one way to appreciate the difficult journey that led us to the present—and to hopefully prevent a grim history from repeating itself—one cannot ignore the gnawing racial dilemma these memorials present in the modern era. According to the United States Census Bureau, 30 percent of the population in Jacksonville is African-American. So how can a city hold on to these artifacts without insulting such a large proportion of its citizens, whose ancestors bore the brunt of the suffering during the Civil War? What about the right of Jacksonville’s African-American residents to walk into a public space, such as a park across the street from City Hall, without encountering a statue of a Confederate soldier who fought for the enslavement of their forefathers?

“You have to understand that you’re commemorating a period of history where you have a large number of fellow citizens who were African-American and who were enslaved in bondage, and that is a reality that you can’t change,” says Smith. “When it gets right down to it, the right that they were fighting for was the right to own slaves in the South, and you do have to recognize that. You have people who have fought in the Civil Rights movement for years to rid the American society of racism, the issue of slavery, the fact that African Americans aren’t getting treated fairly. The Civil Rights movement is still very much prevalent today, because we now have the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a very touchy situation. As a Southerner and as a historian, I’d like to see history preserved, but I also fully recognize what those symbols and what those monuments mean to an African American versus to a white Southerner. Two totally different things.”

chevara-orrin“The truth is powerful, language is political and we need to ensure that our collective history is shared—publicly. We cannot adulate the heroism of Confederate soldiers and ignore millions of enslaved ancestors. I am not opposed to allowing these statues to remain in designated public places if the narrative is reframed, the truth is told and authentic efforts made by our city and its leaders to remedy the structural racism that remains deeply embedded in the fabric of our community. The placards should reflect the truth of our history in its totality,” Orrin says. “I am opposed to schools and parks being named after Confederate soldiers or any symbol of the Confederacy. I live in Historic Springfield and have never set foot in Confederate Park because of its name. Names are important. What we call each other or what we call things matters. For me, the name evokes pain, not pride. Again, it is important that the history of the park be remembered.”

When we look at issues like the renaming of Westside High School because of Forrest’s ties to the Klan, it isn’t difficult to see why the reference to his name was removed—especially since the school received that name during the desegregation of schools in the 1950s as a direct jab at the Civil Rights movement. But other monuments, like the one in Hemming Park, have less belligerent beginnings. While there are currently no talks in the local government about removing that particular statue, the undeniable truth of its racial implications still remains, and the argument for its removal is every bit as valid as the argument for its preservation.

“Hemming Park, from the very earliest days of the laying out of the city, was the town square—a place of welcome to all citizens,” says Wood. “And in today’s climate, a monument dedicated solely to the valor of the Confederacy offends the African-American population, whose relatives were enslaved. It is an issue and it should be a subject of public discussion—and it should not be done hastily. If you have a Confederate sculpture in the middle of your city that is offensive to 25 to 35 percent of the population, then it should be discussed if the appropriate place for it is in the town square or somewhere else.”

So here we stand today, in lingering deliberation. How can Jacksonville remember its Southern history without flying in the face of the efforts to put slavery and Jim Crow behind us? Should these memorials to the Confederacy go or stay? And when you begin editing history in one direction or another, how far will it go? It seems as though, just like cutting a strand of Medusa’s serpent-like locks, the issue only grows and multiplies the more it is dissected.

“If you transfer this discussion to other periods in time, then it leads Jacksonville right into the discussion of Andrew Jackson, who has a very mixed reputation,” says Lisska. Jackson, of course, who was a brilliant military leader and the seventh president of the United States, is also known for his decision to pass the Indian Removal Act, which forced Native American tribes out of their Southern homelands and ultimately led to their deadly journey across the Mississippi River, known as the Trail of Tears. “He was an Army man who was of rock star status for reasons that are not always pretty. If there were a movement to remove the statue of Andrew Jackson by the St. Johns River, then you’re in a position, philosophically, to take a look at the name of this city.”

Similar debates in other cities across the U.S. have often resulted in a stalemate scenario as well. One example would be the sculpture of Edmund Kirby Smith—a native St. Augustine man and Confederate general—which is in the process of being removed from its current place of honor in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., where each state is represented by two statues of their most influential people. In response to a dispute that was ignited over Confederate symbols earlier this year, Governor Rick Scott signed a bill to replace the monument with one of another prominent figure in Florida’s history. What will come of Kirby Smith’s statue following its removal has yet to be decided.

“It would be a shame to throw it away or put it in storage somewhere,” says Wood. “So that gets back to the same question: Where in modern Jacksonville do you put a statue that is a work of art by a local sculptor that is dedicated to a Confederate general of the Civil War? Kirby Smith’s statue is hanging in limbo, which is a metaphor for this whole argument. When it’s removed, what do you do with it?”

So if tearing down Confederate memorials is not the solution, then what is? How does our city address a question that has no clear right or wrong answer? One idea proposed by several local academics is to better balance the scales by more prominently commemorating Jacksonville’s rich African-American history and renowned figures in public spaces.

“One way to strike a balance is to broaden the focus to include other important aspects of our Civil War history not as well-known or acknowledged, particularly the role of black Union soldiers,” says McEachin. “By the end of the Civil War, an estimated 450 slaves from Northeast Florida served in the Union Army, with 26 from Jacksonville serving in a single company of the First South Carolina.”

Matthew Corrigan, chair of the political science and public administration department at the University of North Florida, shares a similar notion: “Rutledge Pearson was a teacher [and human rights activist] who was what I would call the Martin Luther King Jr. of Jacksonville.” Pearson was a key Civil Rights leader here, known for his powerful influence on Jacksonville youth and for his efforts to quiet the violent skirmishes that were taking place in the 1960s. “There’s a school named after him, but I think there should be more. I’m not sure he gets the credit that he deserves. The Confederacy was a big part of our history, but so was the Civil Rights movement—and we really need to acknowledge these leaders.”

Smith proposes that another theoretical solution could be to, rather than destroy the statues, move them to a different location where they become a part of a historical record rather than a public display: “It would be nice to be able to put [a Confederate statue] somewhere where it’s not as prominent but people understand the context of why it is where it is. Maybe like a statue garden somewhere, but certainly not in a courthouse or City Hall. It’s probably something that could jumpstart or help bring about some racial reconciliation.”

For now, however, the soldier will continue to watch high over Hemming Park, whispering memories of a distant past into the ears of a generation that may or may not agree with its message. Unless, that is, the diverse communities of Jacksonville can gather, with representatives from both camps, to participate in a long-term and broadminded dialogue about what our heritage means and how we celebrate it. “Let’s open up the floor for discussion, and have those sides come to the table with the spirit of, ‘This is part of our history, this is something we need to recognize because we don’t want to have it happen again,’” says Smith. “It would be something that would be beneficial to the city, and I think it would be a great way for Jacksonville to show as an example to other Southern cities how to properly deal with this issue. It would be a great way for the community to come together, and I would hope that there are organizations out there that see this as an opportunity.”