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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Florida bill could hold local governments liable for removing Confederate monuments

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo reluctant to keep the initiative alive

Confederate memorial monument known as “Old Joe” pictured at Oak Ridge Cemetery on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.
Confederate memorial monument known as “Old Joe” pictured at Oak Ridge Cemetery on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

The Senate Community Affairs Committee was stunned into silence after gathering Feb. 6 to discuss a bill aimed to preserve history where it was met with racist remarks during public testimony. 

Sen. Alexis Calatayud, R-Miami, posed a question to the man stationed at the lectern. 

“The need to push white supremacy is what I heard,” she said in the meeting. “So, I just want to clarify that is your intent in your public testimony today.” 

There was no pause before his response.

“Yes, it was,” the commenter said. 

Senate Bill 1122 — cited as the “Historic Florida Monuments and Memorials Protection Act” — was filed by Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, in December 2023. If enacted, it would protect historic monuments and memorials from removal, holding local governments legally liable for enforcing ordinances or rules around those withdrawals. 

While aimed to preserve “factual history” as a whole, the bill sparked debate over the protection or removal of Confederate displays. 

Local government officials could face a fine of up to $1,000 and potential civil lawsuits for ordering the removal of any display considered a historic monument or memorial under the bill. 

Gainesville formerly housed multiple remnants of the Confederacy, including a statue dubbed “Old Joe,” along with the Alachua County Public Schools District Office and an elementary school bearing the namesakes of Edmund Kirby Smith and J.J. Finley respectively. 

While those monuments have been removed and replaced, at least two still remain on public grounds in Alachua County, including the Stonewall Camp display and Sidney Lanier Center school. 

Multiple Republican senators condemned the open promotion of white supremacy during the Community Affairs Committee meeting. 

“I want the record to be perfectly clear the comments that I heard today… were vile, they were bigoted, they were racist and they are what is tearing our state apart,” said Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, in the meeting. 

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However, those same senators unanimously approved the bill, passing it to the Fiscal Policy Committee for further review.

The committee’s Democratic members walked out before the vote. 

Florida Student Power Network Civic Engagement Director Laura Munoz, who spoke against the initiative in the meeting, said public testimony was devastating and “absolutely terrifying.” 

“So, we see that there is an effort to make it seem like it’s about historical preservation, but it completely ignores the deeply needed racial healing in our communities,” she said. 

As described by the bill, a historic Florida monument or memorial is any “permanent statue, marker, plaque, flag, banner, cenotaph, religious symbol, painting, seal, tombstone or display” that has been housed on public property for 25 or more years, which would include many state remnants of the Confederacy. 

Learning history is of the utmost importance, but hateful statues don’t need to be left standing to do so, Munoz said. 

“We can learn about the horrible things that happened while also making steps to address the pain and the harm of communities that witnessed that violence and that still are reaping the effects of that violence,” she said. 

Steven Noll, a UF instructional professor of history, said he used to believe keeping Confederate displays in place was beneficial in acknowledging the Civil War. However, his feelings have changed. 

While such monuments and memorials shouldn’t be destroyed, Noll said, they no longer have a place in public spaces even if supporters want them preserved solely to honor fallen soldiers and family history. 

“You cannot disentangle the Confederacy from white supremacy or slavery,” he said.

The majority of American Confederate statues were erected in the early 1900s to coincide with the oppression of Black communities during the Jim Crow Era, long after the end of the Civil War in 1865, according to the Atlanta History Center.

“It’s important to say we don’t approve of these supporters of the ideas that they represent,”  Noll said.

The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally led by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, raised concerns over the resurgence of related ideologies. Movements in opposition to those ideas arose to remove Confederate displays across the country, prompting concern from politicians regarding historical erasure. 

However, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, raised questions about striking down SB 1122 following the outrage sparked during the Community Affairs Committee meeting. The bill is currently still active. 

Executive Director of Women’s Voices of SW Florida Sarah Parker said white power sentiments didn’t have a public resurgence, but instead were kept behind closed doors until supporters felt welcomed by politicians and their proposals. 

Speaking out against the meeting’s inflammatory public testimony doesn’t excuse the conduct of senators who approved the initiative, Parker said. 

“Their actions are speaking louder than their words right now,” she said.

As another speaker during the Community Affairs Committee meeting, she added it was a slap in the face to Black Americans. 

“I think the only thing that this bill is going to do is be more divisive,” Parker said. 

Alachua County Commissioner Mary Alford expressed concern about the potential limitations imposed on local governments under the bill. 

“This sounds like the next step would be that the state might step in and tell us what monuments we can place,” Alford said.

Local elected officials act as representatives of their constituents when deciding to remove and/or replace historic displays, and that should be left in their jurisdiction, Alford said. 

Old Joe, a monument to fallen Confederate soldiers formerly located in front of the Alachua County Administration Building, was relocated southeast of Gainesville to Oak Ridge Cemetery in 2017. It has since been replaced with a statue of the late Dr. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, who was an activist and scholar of African American history at UF. 

A local elementary school formerly named for Confederate General J.J. Finley was given the new title of “Carolyn Beatrice Parker Elementary School” in 2020, the namesake belonging to a Black woman born in Gainesville who served as a physicist on the Manhattan Project. Other buildings have been similarly renamed. 

Alachua County’s remaining remnants of the Confederacy are primarily the names of certain school board buildings, which likely do not fall under the description of “historic Florida monuments or memorials,” Alford said. 

While the Sidney Lanier Center, a Gainesville school, still holds its original Confederate title, Alford said there’s been interest in renaming the school board building on East University Avenue after the late Charles Chestnut III, a local Civil Rights pioneer and former member of the Alachua County School Board and Alachua County Commission. 

“I think it is appropriate for us to name buildings and marketplaces for things that are meaningful to the people that use those buildings,” Alford said. 

Gainesville City Commissioner Reina Saco said it’s important that cities and counties retain this type of control. 

“Those closest to home know the community best,” she said. 

Supporters of protecting Confederate statues likely don’t have trauma related to the circumstance of their creation, she said, emphasizing Florida could preserve accurate history in ways other than prohibiting the removal of hateful displays and limiting local governments.

“We can learn more about history if Tallahassee wasn’t banning our history books and rewriting them,” Saco said.

While SB 1122 is operating under the guise of protecting history, she said, it’s instead preventing people from acknowledging the past and moving on. 

Lily Donovan, a 21-year-old UF business senior, expressed having passed by numerous monuments regularly that have given her no educational value. 

Providing an uncensored history curriculum in classrooms is better than walking by potentially insensitive statues every day, she said, especially those related to the Confederacy. 

“It is more offensive than educational,” she said.

Contact Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp at Follow her on X @rylan_digirapp.

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Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp

Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp is a second-year journalism and environmental science major covering enterprise politics. She previously worked as a metro news assistant. Outside of the newsroom, you can usually find her haunting local music venues.

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