Saturday, July 07, 2018

I support City of St. Augustine, Florida's Confederate Monument Contextualization Advisory Committee Recommendations

I agree with Committee's recommendation, including the words "white supremacy."  It's historically accurate.  Let's speak the truth, "warts and all."

Let's continue promoting healing and brotherhood in our Nation's Oldest City.  

The St. Augustine Confederate Monument Contextualization Committee text is truthful.

I have never been prouder to live in St. Augustine.

Here are: 
  • the e-mail that I sent today to St. Augustine City Commissioners and Committee members, 
  • the Committee's recommended text, and 
  • differing views of my friend, Melinda Rakoncay.  

Corrected 7/8 to reflect there were ten (10) meetings commencing on February 7, 2018.

-----Original Message-----
From: Ed Slavin
To: (Commissioners and Committee members)
Sent: Sat, Jul 7, 2018 5:30 pm
Subject: City of St. Augustine, Florida's Confederate Monument Contextualization Advisory Committee Recommendations

Dear Mayor Shaver, Commissioners, Chairman Jackson and City of St. Augustine Confederate Monument Contextualization Advisory Committee members:
1. I was the only citizen who attended every meeting, gavel-to-gavel, from February 7 to June 20, 2018 (other than Committee members and City staff, of course).   
2. I agree with the text recommended by our Confederate Monument Contextualization Advisory Committee. 
3. The Committee, assisted by City staff, thoughtfully researched, analyzed, discussed, debated and understood our history.  This is the first "biracial" committee in City history.
4. The "white supremacy" statement is no "affront," as one person asserts -- it is historically accurate.  (Compare differing views from Ms. Rakoncay, attached).
5. Thank you for preserving and contextualizing St. Augustine's Confederate Monument.  Thank you for resisting threats and pressures to remove or demolish it. 
6. Thank you for telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 
7. As Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George H.W. Bush would both say, "Here we stand, warts and all."
8. Keep up the great work!   The University of Florida and other cities are watching what we do.
9. I have never been prouder to live in St. Augustine, Florida.
10. Be not afraid.  Let the process of healing continue.  Encourage continued rational discussion of an emotionally-charged issue.  
11. Listen to everyone, learn from everyone, promote healing, but never back down from historical truth-telling.  
12. Mayor, City Commissioners, IF you have not already done so, will you please watch some (or all) of the ten (10) meeting videos this weekend, so as to appreciate better your diverse, highly-qualified, well-informed Confederate Monument Contextualization Advisory Committee's scholarly, reasoned, documented deliberations?  
As President Lyndon Johnson told Congress after Selma, "We SHALL overcome!"
Thank you. 
With kindest regards, I am,
Sincerely yours,
Ed Slavin

Adding context …

The Confederate Memorial Contextualization Advisory Committee recommendation is to add a plaque to each four sides of the memorial that would provide brief details about the monument, about St. Augustine during the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, about men from the city fighting on both sides of the war, and about how the monument is perceived differently by people. Below is the proposed wording for each of the plaques.

North Plaque: St. Augustine during the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation

FREEDOM: Our nation’s Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865 between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America. Battles did not come to St. Augustine, but Union troops occupied the city in March 1862. They remained through the end of the war and Reconstruction.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation decreed that on January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any State ... in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The Proclamation formalized the freedoms that enslaved people had claimed for themselves since the arrival of Union troops. On New Year’s Day, 1864, the Proclamation’s first anniversary was celebrated in this Plaza, where the Confederate Monument would later stand.

The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution brought new possibilities to St. Augustine’s black residents earlier than other areas of the Confederacy: to own property, to marry legally, to learn to read and write, and for men, to vote and hold public office.

South Plaque: St. Augustine Men Fought on Both Sides

SACRIFICE: White men in St. Augustine formed militias which joined the Confederate Florida regiments and fought in Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina. Only a handful remained to surrender in 1865. Many others were buried in graves far from home.

Black men in St. Augustine were among the first to join black fighting units in the Civil War as early as 1862. Local black men headed to Hilton Head, South Carolina, to join volunteer regiments. These forces were later designated the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

The USCT fought in segregated units led by white officers. They raided coastal areas, liberated thousands of enslaved persons, and in 1863 the Colored Troops led the way in occupying Jacksonville, Florida, and in 1865 restored the Stars and Stripes to Fort Sumter, South Carolina, where the war began.

East Plaque: The Monument as a Memorial

MEMORY: This 1879 obelisk replaces one originally built on South St. George Street in 1872. It is the second oldest Confederate monument in the state of Florida. The Ladies Memorial Association of St. Augustine raised private funds to construct the memorial to honor the town’s men who died in service of the Confederate States of America.

Its marble plaques were once attached to the 1872 Confederate memorial. The plaques list the names of forty-six men, many of whom were of Minorcan or Spanish descent, a reflection of St. Augustine’s diverse ethnic heritage.

For many years on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26th, the ladies of the Memorial Association decorated the monument with flowers. As decades passed, the memorial blended into the Plaza’s landscape. The City of St. Augustine respects the historical and emotional importance of this memorial.

West Plaque: Changing Viewpoints of the Monument

INTERPRET: The public’s response to the display of Confederate monuments from the 1870s through the Civil Rights era and beyond remains deeply personal, emotional, and divisive. Some view this memorial as a noble reminder of personal sacrifice; others interpret it as a painful reminder of the re-assertion of white supremacy.

Why are monuments and memorials important? They convey what a community feels and honors, and reflect the values of its people. Monuments and memorials reflect the social and political context of their time. Those perspectives and interpretations change over time, and this monument is no exception.

The obelisk honors local loved ones who gave up their lives in service of the Confederate states. Yet in all these Confederate state constitutions, black people were legally regarded as human property. This memorial is a reminder of the diverse legacies of the Civil War.

Differing views of Ms. Melinda Rakoncay:

Mayor Shaver
Vice Mayor Neville,
Commissioner Freeman,
Commissioner Horvath,
Commissioner Sikes Kline,
City Manager John Regan,
I was one of the few people that regularly attended most of the Confederate Monument Committee
meetings, and can attest that the committee did not have an easy job.
While a noble attempt, these four plaques do not accomplish the original assignment. Even the word
smithing is awkward in places, simply because it was written by a committee with many different writing
styles and viewpoints. The result still contains text that had disagreements among members and the
The most blaring is the use of the term “white supremacy” on the “Interpret” plaque. This was objected
to by a majority of the public that attended the meetings, and there were some committee members that
felt it could be inflammatory. Yet Michael Butler, whose speciality is teaching Jim Crow Era history, was
insistent on it remaining. Not even 1% of this country would consider themselves white supremacists,
and it certainly is not something that describes the residents of St. Augustine. On that same plaque it says
that memorials convey “what a community feels and honors, and reflect the values of its people.” The
implication is that St Augustine honors “white supremacy,” which is an affront to those of us that live
here, and to the memory of families whose relatives are on the war memorial.
John Regan pointed out in his presentation this monument is NOT a Jim Crow Era monument and has
nothing to do with glorifying the Confederacy or its cause. This is a simple war memorial which was
built only to honor the war dead. For many of these men, who were never returned to St Augustine for
burial, the memorial acted as a tombstone, since most died far from home and were buried in unmarked
The point of the adding context to the monument was to explain that it is a simple war memorial and
perhaps add the history of how it was built. The Plaza de la Constitution is listed on the National
Register of Historic Places, and as such, this memorial is protected, as is the other war memorial that sits
on the plaza. The City Commission voted to keep it with a contextualization plaque because St.
Augustine preserves its history.
While it might have been well intentioned to try and explain the complicated and unique role of St.
Augustine during the Civil War, given the limited amount of space to do so and the conflicting
viewpoints of what was important, these plaques end up doing little to educate the public. Biases are still
woven unintentionally into the wording, and no one will ever be happy with the final content.
Example…one of the interesting facts is that St. Augustine had both white and black men, who fought on
both the North and the South. On the “Sacrifice” plaque only one brief paragraph is given to the actual
men on the memorial, but two paragraphs are given to Union black troops and their accomplishments.
Yet no one wanted to touch the fact that there are blacks buried with their white fellow soldiers under
CSA markers in San Lorenzo Cemetery.
The committee rationalized that there would be further explanations and history given through Mobile
Tours, QR Codes, GPS, and AR, but no mention of who  would be responsible for writing this additional
history, how  to control further biases in the additional material, and who  would maintain and fund  these
additional sites.
While the committee was supposed to seek  and incorporate public input, there was little way for the
public to have input without actually attending the meetings. There were only a handful that attended
on a regular basis, and they were allowed input only at the end of the meeting after the discussion was
over. Because of dismissal time coming promptly at 5 pm, it meant that public input was not discussed
and little of it was incorporated. Early on Paul Williams asked the committee if there was anything he
could do on behalf of the City to help get drafts out to the public for feedback, and the reply was “no.”
There were no email listings of Committee members for people to send in suggestions. Darlene gave me
an email address for the committee, but it was not listed on the City’s website. I sent two letters to that
email address and got denials from some committee members that they received my emails, much less
considered their input. I only say this to let you know that these plaques do not really reflect any input
from the public.
In truth, the war memorial speaks quietly for itself. It s a simple tribute to local men who died in battle,
no different than the other war memorial on the Plaza. While there may also be disagreements over the
Viet Nam War, we don’t question the lives or service of those that died in it. This war memorial is no
different, and should be respected as such.
However, I understand the political need  for the City to do something  regarding this memorial.
The example from Santa Fe, NM that John Regan showed in his presentation was a small plaque that
simply explained that times and language were different when it was erected. Since this memorial has
no offending symbols or language on it, a simple explanation should be that the City chose to keep it
because it is a war memorial and is very much part of our Plaza history.
Perhaps a solution is something simple, such as:
“The City of St. Augustine has always considered the preservation of its history for future generations to be of
upmost importance. This war memorial was built in 1879 with private funds raised by the The Ladies Memorial
Association of St. Augustine to commemorate local men who died in service to the Confederate States of America.
Most of their bodies were never returned home, but were buried in unmarked graves far from home. Its marble
plaques were once attached to an earlier 1872 Confederate memorial located on south St. George Street. The plaques
list the names of forty-six men, many of whom were of Minorcan or Spanish descent, a reflection of St. Augustine’s
diverse ethnic heritage.
The City of St Augustine respects the rights and freedom of all people, regardless of their backgrounds.”
 Again, I respect the effort made by the committee. However, I feel that they tried to explain too much
with too few words, and in the process have a product that changes the the intent of this obelisk, which is
simply to honor the dead. I don’t think any of us would want someone adding “context” to the
tombstone of any of our family members, regardless of what they have done or not done in life. Let the
dead rest in peace. This memorial has quietly been a part of the Plaza’s history for almost 140 years.
Now is not the time to change the memorial or its history.
Melinda Rakoncay

No comments: