by Tim Gilmore, 6/9/2020
I expected Jacksonville would be one of the last Southern cities. It usually is. It was one of the last cities to remove the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan from the name of a high school.
When someone sprayed sloppy graffiti on the Confederate monument before City Hall in 2017, Mayor Lenny Curry said he was “disgusted,” that disfiguring this memorial to slavery and the Confederacy “goes against everything that I stand for, that the City of Jacksonville stands for.”
Two days ago, I wrote a story about how I’d like Lenny Curry to try to explain this disgust in terms of a “great uncle” of mine, Phil Gilmore, a racist white police officer who murdered a black man in Macon County, Georgia.
After the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on the college town supposedly to defend the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from removal, the rally at which Confederate flags and swastikas and images of Adolf Hitler blazoned in the streets, the rally at which a black man named DeAndre Harris was assaulted by six neo-Confederates, the rally at which a young white counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was murdered by a white supremacist…
I can’t believe it’s been three years since I sent the following email to then-Council President Anna Lopez Brosche:
August 13, 2017
However you may feel already about the movement to remove Confederate memorials from places of honor, I ask you to give me a minute of your time and respect.
As a Southerner, as someone who wants the best for the South, I believe we should make our city’s Confederate monuments tools for education by removing them from places of honor and placing them in public (not private) museums or college libraries.
Removing Confederate memorials from places of honor is NOT about removing history. It’s the exact opposite. It’s about acknowledging history.
Museums and colleges are educational institutions; pedestals and parks are places of honor.
The question is whether Jacksonville wants to honor symbols of a system, the Confederacy, that fought against the United States and was based, in the words of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, on “slavery subordination to the superior race.”
In Stephens’ “Cornerstone Address,” given in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861, the Confederate vice president said, “Our new government,” rests upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
This cause is a chance for all of us to come together. The Confederacy is not synonymous with the South, and the Confederacy is not synonymous with whiteness.
Why would anyone in Jacksonville, of whatever race or ethnicity, wish to continue to honor such an abhorrent and shameful system?
Saturday, in Charlottesville, Virginia, as we all know, the largest white nationalist rally in decades brought Confederate flags and swastikas together at a Confederate monument. This event ended in violence that left at least one person dead.
I’m issuing to you, in your capacity as a Jacksonville leader, a very personal appeal and begging you to be better, to be nobler, and to not honor slavery and the Confederacy. Please use your voice to place Confederate memorials in public educational institutions where they can be historically contextualized.
Please use your voice to remove from places of honor such shameful, shameful symbols, for there is, simply put, no decent and acceptable argument for continuing to honor them.
Councilwoman Brosche called for the statues to be removed. She took heat for it. When I served on the City Council’s Civil Rights History Task Force, a fellow committee member, Edward Waters College Professor Rahman Johnson, drafted a letter that I was happy to sign asking for the monuments to come down.
This morning, Rahman tells me, “Right now the hair on the back of my neck is standing up and my heart is full.” He says, “As a member of the Civil Rights History Task Force, dealing with the issue of the Confederate statue in Hemming Park was paramount to me. I know that more is needed but it’s a start. I am sad that it took Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and countless others to make people listen. Now that they are listening, let’s use this energy to find a more peaceful connected way to live.”
At rallies in Hemming Park and Confederate Park, I spoke alongside Wells Todd of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition and Kris Kiernan, Eleanor Wilson and other leaders of the group Take ’Em Down Jax, basing a call for removing the monuments in an understanding of their history. I’ve written repeatedly about that history.
As I write this, 9:14 in the morning, having just returned from Hemming Park, Mayor Curry hasn’t explained why he chose to remove the monument four hours ago. There’s plenty of skepticism. He wants Trump’s Republican National Convention here (on the anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday even), but Trump has decried all calls to remove such memorials. (And indeed, the following day, one op-ed headline says, “Jacksonville Inches Forward, Then Take Two Steps Back.” While few other cities in the country want it, Curry begged for Trump’s convention and, so newspapers report tentatively, he got it.
Nate Monroe writes, “Under the best circumstances, Jacksonville is a questionable host city. The city infamously had to dock a cruise ship in downtown to host the Super Bowl in 2005 to accommodate the need for hotel space. It has added no additional hotel space in the intervening years.”
He adds, “This is also not lost on locals: Trump’s formal coronation as the Republican nominee will overlap with the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, a sweltering day during which an angry white mob wielding ax handles and bats terrorized and beat peaceful black protesters during a sit-in at a downtown Jacksonville lunch counter. It’s a day of enormous importance in the city’s recent history despite the fact that the local government does nothing to recognize it.”)
And the park is still called “Hemming,” after Charles Hemming, who donated the statue to the city in 1898.
Anna Brosche offers this official statement: “I appreciate Mayor Lenny Curry’s executive action to remove the Confederate monument from Hemming Park and I am grateful for this day in Jacksonville. It is my hope that we may begin the process of healing and reconciliation that respects every single individual and sets a path for the realization of racial equity, including promises made during Consolidation.”
Before the park was renamed for Hemming, it was called St. James Park. St. James is the patron saint of pilgrims. Can there be a more beautiful name for a park at the center of a city? Much work remains. This small victory is nonetheless a victory. Let’s make our pilgrimages to the center and see what we can do next.