What Will Become of Pensacola’s Civil War Memorial?
by Jeremy Morrison
From his high-ground post in Lee Square, the Confederate soldier looks down Palafox Street and over downtown Pensacola. He’s been watching the city grow — watching the world evolve — since 1891 when he was placed on a pedestal a quarter century after the Civil War to honer “Confederate Dead.
On Sunday, Aug. 13, the soldier watched as a small group of people walked down Palafox carrying signs deriding “hate,” “racism” and “white nationalism.” The group proceeded to Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza, where a bust of the slain Civil Rights leader stared back at the Confederate soldier.
The group had gathered to show support for the community of Charlottesville, Va., where a gathering of white nationalist organizations had turned violent, as a day full of clashes with counter protesters culminated with a fatality after a man identified as a white nationalist plowed his car into a crowd.
The white nationalists organizations converged on Charlottesville to protest the potential removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park. The Charlottesville statue finds itself facing the same questions as other Civil War monuments throughout the South and beyond: What do these monuments honor? What is there proper place in today’s society?
Some communities have chosen to remove monuments, others have left them alone and still others have attempted to contextualize the monuments. The conversation seems near a fever pitch in the wake of Charlottesville — on Aug. 14, a group of citizens took it upon themselves to topple a Confederate statue outside a courthouse in Durham, N.C., a state where legislators have passed laws barring local governments from removing Civil War monuments.
But as its compatriots around the South have fallen in the face of these questions, Pensacola’s own Civil War memorial has seemed to avoid such challenges. And even with the current national climate, Pensacola City Councilman Gerald Wingate assumes the Confederate soldier in Lee Square will weather any storm that comes its way.
“I dunno,” Wingate considered. “Down here in Pensacola, things don’t really transfer down here.”
The news out of Charlottesville had turned the councilman’s thoughts to Pensacola’s Civil War memorial. After the weekend, he headed down to Lee Square, as well as Plaza Ferdinand, where an obelisk pays tribute to Florida politician, railroad tycoon and Confederate officer William Chipley.
“It’s kind of funny you should mention that,” Wingate said when asked about Pensacola’s monument Monday afternoon. “That’s one of the things I did today, was to go and check on the Confederate monuments.”
The monuments were still there. As they always have been and, the councilman assumes, they will continue to be.
But the councilman’s been surprised before.
“I was surprised, over in New Orleans, they took down some statues over there,” Wingate said. But, in Pensacola? “No, I don’t think so.”
However, the councilman allows, taking the current national landscape into account, he can see the fate of Pensacola’s Civil War monument “potentially being an issue.” His cohort, Councilman Andy Terhaar, is fairly confident the issue will arise.
“It’s something I’m sure will come up at some point,” Terhaar said Monday. “It typically does, someone will bring it up. It doesn’t really mean anything’s going to be done about it.”
The councilman noted that this issue of Civil War monuments is one he’s given some thought to. He mentions that he recently discussed the subject with his wife, and that he can understand the varying perspectives.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Terhaar said, explaining that he understands why some people are offended by the monuments, and others embrace them as heritage and history. “I kind of go back and forth on it.”
The councilman said that while the monuments are dedicated to an uncomfortable period of American history, modern society should resist deeming them so inappropriate they are erased from existence.
“It’s not a good part of our history, but it is part of our history,” Terhaar said.
The councilman sounded as if he expected the topic to eventually makes its way before the city council.
“It’s one of those things that if I had to take a hard line on it I’d probably lean toward keeping’em, but I’m definitely up for the debate,” Terhaar said.
Councilman Larry B. Johnson has also given this subject some thought. With the pain of Charlottesville so fresh, and emotions surrounding the topic primed nationally, the councilman said Tuesday that he preferred to hold off on commenting. He described the subject as “a sensitive issue” and said he wanted to formulate a “measured response.”
The abbreviated statement Johnson did offer on Pensacola’s monument, however, was plenty clear: “I support it coming down.”
Councilwoman Sherri Myers said she’s ready for the discussion over Pensacola’s monuments. Thinks it needs to happen.
“At what point are we willing to sit down and talk about the truth? About the raw truth, about the monuments and about what to do with them?” Myers said Tuesday.
The councilwoman said she felt that Civil War monuments were viewed by some as a “glorification” of the Confederacy and what it stood for, while others saw them as celebrating an era “that they are horrified by.”
Myers stressed that this is not unique to Civil War monuments. She listed off a couple of controversial historical figures that have earned local recognition: “Andrew Jackson being one of them, a statue of Christopher Columbus …”
“We have a lot of statutes that honor people that had views of humanity that we in this country find unacceptable,” Myers said.
But the councilwoman isn’t intent on taking down any statues.
“I’m not advocating taking it down. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying it should be in the right context, and we should be honoring other people,” she explained.
Myers would like to see additional monuments installed in the city’s public spaces in an effort to add “balance.” Monuments to slaves. Monuments to indigenous people.
“To teach people about history. To honor other people,” she said. “I mean, where are the monuments to women?”
The councilwoman said she plans to explore the possibility of the city, as well as Escambia County, providing funds to the local Humans Rights Commission so that it can host community meetings aimed at discussing the topic.
“Before people start talking about taking down monuments, I’d rather have some unity dialogue. Because there are other solutions, but we’re going to have to talk it all out,” Myers said.
When asked his thoughts on the issue, Council President Brian Spencer leaned on a statement from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who in May defended the city’s decision to remove four Confederate monuments, saying such monuments “are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history,” but rather “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
“I think his speech awakened the city of New Orleans, and the nation for that matter, to the distinction between reverence and remembrance for public monuments,” Spencer said. “For me, this expands the discussion beyond ‘to remove or not to remove’ and requires us to honestly face our history and ask ourselves if we are proud of our monuments that revere intolerable actions of the past.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, city administration had not addressed questions from this publication concerning the Confederate monument in Lee Square: Whether city administration had discussed the possibility of removing it. Whether citizens had approached the city about the monument. How Mayor Ashton Hayward felt about the issue.
City Public Information Officer Vernon Stewart instead pointed to a statement released Tuesday in which Hayward said he was “saddened by the ongoing events in Charlottesville.” The mayor’s statement did not mention monuments, but instead stressed Hayward’s “support of civil rights” and “opposition to racism and discrimination of all kinds.”
“I am reiterating my unequivocal belief that hate and bigotry have no place in America,” Hayward said, calling out “white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and all other hate groups who do not share our democratic values” and urging other elected officials to do the same.
“Pensacola’s future is best served by a reputation for being a welcoming community, a beacon of respect for all,” Hayward said in the statement. “I intend to continue to work with everyone in our community to make sure that we live up to that reputation.”
Although the subject of Pensacola’s Confederate monument is not addressed in the city administration’s Aug. 15 statement, it may soon have to directly take on the issue. If not because members of city council — like Myers and her notions of HRC town halls, or Johnson and his appetite for removal — lay it on the table, then because members of the public press the matter.
Like William Gibbons did in a Tuesday morning email to members of city council. Gibbons could not be reached for further comment by publication time, but his concerns were laid out plainly in his email: “Please Remove/Replace the Lee square confederate memorial” [sic].
“I have long questioned why we memorize [sic] confederate dissidents such as Gen Lee and Jeff Davis. After recent events in Charlottesville it has become only to [sic] clear that these statues MUST go. Too many Americans die preserving our union to celebrate these confederate scum with the Lee Square confederate memorial,” Gibbons wrote the city council, suggesting the monuments be replaced with Union notables — “Why not replace this monument with one of Lincoln or General Sherman, real American heroes” — and pointing to the Crescent City as an example to follow. “In New Orleans Lee Circle was removed and the world did not cease to turn.”
On Aug. 15, the day after releasing his initial statement, Mayor Hayward sat down for his weekly radio interview with Newsradio 1620’s Andrew McKay. During the interview the mayor elaborated on his thoughts concerning the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, as well as the removal of Confederate monuments.
Hayward said that he wanted to see the monument in Lee Square removed. He said he had “started going down that path unilaterally” after the weekend, but then learned such a move would require the involvement of city council. That process, he said, is beginning.
In explaining his position, Hayward said he felt that Confederate monuments needed to be put in “context.” Removing such monuments, the mayor said, would be a step toward healing a country divided.
“History is important to learn from, but when it’s going to divide a country or state or city, as elected officials you’ve gotta name it, call it out, and say ‘this is what we’re going to do to move forward,’” Hayward said in the radio interview.
Later in the day, Councilman Johnson also released a more specific statement detailing his position. He condemned white supremacists as “un-American” and suggested the monument in Lee Square might be better suited for a museum.
“For many, Pensacola’s Confederate monument is a symbol of that hate and of a shameful period in our city’s past,” Johnson stated. “I do not believe that the monument belongs in a public park overlooking our downtown.”