Monday, November 17, 2008

City should celebrate its past, good and bad

City should celebrate its past, good and bad

St. Augustine

I read with interest and some sorrow the Sunday guest column from David Thundershield. Thundershileld and Ms. Carol Hausman advocating that we not "honor" the 500th anniversary of the landing of Ponce de Leon on the 450th birthday of St. Augustine and landing of Pedro Menendez de Aviles.

I do not quibble with their facts and conclusions that both of these Spanish explorers and their contemporaries were brutal and cruel, particularly to indigenous peoples they found here and the French explorers Menendez was sent to conquer. I do not disagree that these Spanish explorers were motivated by greed in hopes of finding great wealth and by a desire to conquer more peoples for their God and their King.

But I do most certainly disagree with the conclusion they draw that we should allow these historic events to pass unnoticed. Indeed, I believe it is our obligation to acknowledge them and to use these anniversaries as an opportunity to teach ourselves and future generations about the past, good and bad. The key lies in an honest account of that past.

My wife and I recently traveled to Peru and Ecuador and spoke to several people there about how they acknowledge a nearly contemporaneous but even more egregious history of Spanish conquest. They told us how they are uncomfortable with the idea of "celebrating" the anniversaries of the Spanish destruction of the Incan civilization. Instead, they use those occasions to celebrate their history that preceded and followed those invasions, acknowledging their occurrence and impacts, but focusing today's and future generations upon the remarkable accomplishments of their countries and the peoples that have populated them for thousands of years.

It is no different for us in how we present and discuss the civil rights history of St. Augustine. During our 400th birthday event in 1965, this town was still very torn over a racial divide and abhorrent behavior toward the black community that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The civil rights movement was seen by some as a distraction from the birthday events of that year. In a few short years, for the 450th, we have the opportunity and indeed the responsibility to present that civil rights struggle honestly and fully. Just so with the indigenous peoples and their descendents.

We do not "celebrate" such events in our past. We commemorate them to keep the memory alive. We teach. We learn. We pledge to never again allow or encourage slavery, bigotry, genocide, or forced imposition of religious belief.

I have worked with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians. They are rightly proud of their past and have much to teach us. We should seek out and invite the tribes and their descendents whose lives were impacted by the events that have unfolded here since 1513 when Ponce de Leon first came upon the Timucuan. They should tell their stories. The authors of the letter should participate. They would have the opportunity to teach a national and international audience what happened here.

If in a few years we celebrate anything, it should be that we are not afraid to talk about our past, including the terrible tings above which we have risen. As Thundershield and Hausman suggest, we should honor our cultural diversity. I, for one, look forward to the challenges and opportunities we face in these next several years to tell our history and the stories of the remarkable people who preceded us. It is a civic responsibility and moral imperative to do it right.

William Leary is a member of the St. Augustine Planning and Zoning Commission and is on the board of the St. Johns Cultural Council.

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