As America again looks at symbols, Florida Capitol’s Confederate memorial remains
Protests over the death of George Floyd while in police custody have again sparked awareness of the remaining Confederate symbols in the South, with several memorials and monuments being removed.
But one mysterious obelisk, placed early last century, remains — and it's in the Florida Capitol’s front yard. It's mysterious in part because its origins are almost entirely lost to history.
It's a four-sided, water-stained stone pillar, standing like a sentinel for visitors where U.S. 27 enters downtown Tallahassee, right outside the historic Capitol.
But while other Confederate vestiges are quickly being swept into the dustbin of history, the Capitol's marble memorial persists after years of government inaction.
That started when then-Gov. Rick Scott's staff said he didn't have authority to move it, pointing to legislative leaders, who in turn said they didn't have responsibility for the piece.
And so it stays, while other reminders of the Confederacy are fast disappearing, sometimes not even officially. For example, in recent days:
· Protesters toppled three statues — including one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis — in less than a week in Richmond, Virginia, former capital of the Confederacy.
· NASCAR banned the display of Confederate flags at its races because it said the Stars and Bars is contrary to “a welcoming and inclusive environment.”
· The U.S. Marine Corps prohibited Confederate symbols at its bases as part of an effort to root out white supremacy.
· Grammy award-winning country band Lady Antebellum changed its name to Lady A. Antebellum means "before the war" and band members said they were "embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before the Civil War, which includes slavery."
· In Gadsden County, the only Florida county in which Blacks are over half of the population, workers took away a memorial to the county’s Civil War veterans — almost all of whom fought for the Confederacy. That was within minutes of the county commission approving the removal.
Removing 'symbols of hate'
The Floyd protests in particular have morphed into a movement to cleanse public spaces of Confederate symbols because many protesters trace police brutality to systemic racism rooted in the Jim Crow era.
But even before that, Geraldine Thompson, now a Democratic state representative from Orange County, for years tried to get rid of the Confederate memorial at the Capitol, starting when she was a state senator.
She's filed bills to prohibit the display of Confederate symbols on publicly owned land, only to see them die by the end of the legislative session.
“All kinds of people pay taxes to support government buildings," Thompson said in an interview. "And I think none of the people who are taxpayers should be offended (if we) remove symbols of hate, including the Confederate flag and Confederate statues.”
In the last session, she met with Republican House Speaker José Oliva about the memorial. His office did not respond for a request to comment. Neither did Gov. Ron DeSantis' office.
Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said that though there is merit in maintaining artwork and artifacts that reflect Florida history he would support an “appropriate process” to remove the memorial.
Galvano, who is term limited this year, referred to how the Senate removed the Confederate flag from the Senate seal and removed a mural outside the Senate's public gallery that featured Confederate Gen. Joseph Finnegan.
Thompson said one solution is to identify the group that sponsored the memorial outside and maybe work with it to find a more suitable location. But the group may not exist after over a century.
That shouldn't even matter, said Loranne Ausley, Tallahassee's Democratic state representative.
“A Confederate monument has no place in front of the state Capitol or on the grounds of the state Capitol unless it is in a museum,” she said. "Now is the time to remove this symbol of our hurtful and painful history."
Signals of white supremacy?
To be sure, a slew of Confederate memorials was erected after Reconstruction — in critics' view — as a reassertion of white supremacy under the guise of glorifying Confederate leaders.
In recent years, however, lawmakers have charted a different course for how the state presents its history.
In 2018, the Legislature approved a bill to create a Florida Slavery Memorial on the Capitol grounds. It appears it will be the first memorial to slaves at any state capitol. In 2020, legislators appropriated $400,000 for its completion and installation.
Also in 2018, lawmakers voted to replace a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, the last surviving Confederate General when he died in 1893, that represents Florida in the U.S. Capitol.
In its place will be one of Mary McLeod Bethune, a child of former slaves who founded what is now Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. That sculpture, to be made of marble from the same Tuscan quarry Michelangelo used for his David statue, is scheduled to be installed at the end of 2021.
And on Friday, in a similar controversy, Florida State University College of Law faculty members formally petitioned lawmakers to move on a request to rename the law school's main building. It's now named for B.K. Roberts, the late Florida Supreme Court justice who helped found it.
He wrote a pro-segregation opinion going against the U.S. Supreme Court to deny Virgil Hawkins, a black student, admission to the University of Florida law school. Bills have failed the past three sessions to allow schools flexibility in naming — and renaming — their buildings.
FSU President John Thrasher himself asked the Legislature to allow the university to rename the law school building.
“To keep the name of B.K. Roberts ... would continue to honor someone whose decisions and actions do not reflect Florida State University's values or the rule of law,” Thrasher said in 2018.
Thompson agrees. The recent protests are a "coming to terms with our past and saying we are not going to perpetuate division," she said. "And we are not going to celebrate symbols of hatred.
"We are going to take a different course here in the state of Florida.”