The St. Augustine City Commission voted 4-1 on Monday evening to advance the recommendation by a local committee to add “context” to the city’s controversial Confederate monument and keep it standing, despite recent protests.
Before voting on the matter, the city commission heard from the public for more than two hours, with supporters of the monument outnumbering opponents, some of them clad in t-shirts that read #leaveitalone.
The city created its bi-racial committee, made up of historians and museum officials, last year when city leaders decided that they would not remove the 1872 monument, which stands at the Plaza de la Constitucion in downtown St. Augustine. Instead of removal, four historical context plaques will be installed on the monument’s base with the headings Freedom, Sacrifice, Memory and Interpret.
The Interpret plaque will read: “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.”
The only dissenting vote came from St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver, who said she felt there was too much information being placed on four plaques. Despite her no vote, Shaver said that critics of the committee were off base.
“That’s how democracy plays out,” the mayor told WTLV-TV after the meeting had concluded. “Some people may not like it for whatever reason, but we do the best we can when we sit in those chairs to do the right thing.”
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Reverend Ron Rawls and Jill Pacetti have diametrically opposing views regarding St. Augustine’s Confederate memorial in the heart of the historic city, but neither is happy with the recommendations a local committee came up with to add more so-called “context” to the monument. The committee will formally present its recommendations at the St. Augustine City Commission this afternoon, just days after protesters picketed the Civil War statue in protest.
More than a hundred Confederate memorials have been taken down around the southern U.S. in recent years due to controversy, but St Augustine’s city commission voted in October to keep the 1872 Confederate memorial, which is located in downtown’s Plaza de la Constitucion. The monument names more than 40 men who died while serving the Confederacy.
Over Fourth of July weekend, protesters descended on the controversial statue, which they see as an unwelcome vestige of the racist Confederate south.
When it voted to keep the monument, the city set up a “Confederate Memorial Contextualization Advisory Committee,” and appointed three black and four white residents to serve on it.
The push to remove the confederate memorial began last August and has been led by the Rev. Ron Rawls, the pastor of St. Paul AME Church.
Noting how the surrounding St. Johns County is only six percent black, Rawls says St. Augustine is a conservative region with a legacy of racism that should not be forgotten – especially the fact that St. Augustine was where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for attempting to enter a restaurant in 1964.
Rawls says creating the contextualization committee is the equivalent of trying to “put lipstick on a pig” and says that he and his supporters will continue to protest as they did last week on the 4thof July in downtown St. Augustine. Rawls said he believes that the only way to convince city leaders to change course is to hurt them in the pocketbook.
“Our commitment is to cause disruption in the tourist economy, and so we go down into the tourist district and protest and make sure that racism is not comfortable,” he says.
When city manager John Regan announced last summer that the memorial would remain in place but that another display would be added to explain the history of the monument and provide more context, Dr. J. Michael Butler, Professor of History at Flagler College, said he was eager to become a part of the contextualization committee.
“The city said we’re not taking the monument down, so how do we preserve this monument and present its meaning for as many people as possible?” he said was the committee’s mission.
Lifelong St. Augustine resident Jill Pacetti says she was completely on board with the concept when she first heard about it.
Pacetti’s interest is visceral. One of the Confederate soldiers whose name is on the monument, Eusebio Pacetti, is her cousin four times removed. Eusebio Pacetti fought in one of the Seminole wars and was drafted into the Civil War for the Confederate side. He died in 1864.
“It’s a war memorial, and there’s nothing offensive about that,” she says. “These men – their lives mattered, and that’s how we remembered them.”
Pacetti says she was relieved to learn that the monument wouldn’t be removed, and initially didn’t have any issues with the forming the contextualization committee. But her mood turned sour, she says, when she learned that the plan would be to add four plaques, placed at the base of each side of the memorial. Those plaques will now share a brief story from civil war history, with the headings, Freedom, Sacrifice, Memory and Interpret.
It’s the language in that Interpret plaque (subtitled “Changing View of the Monument”) that irks Pacetti. It begins this way:
“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.”
“I think that is a total desecration on these men’s names and their memories,” Pacetti says of the reference to white supremacy.
“I can see why some people would object to that language,” says Thomas Graham, a professor emeritus of history at Flagler College and one of the seven members of the contextual committee. “And I can see why some people say the language is right on.”
Graham says St. Augustine has always respected its history and says he’s personally glad the monument won’t be removed. He says he’s also appreciative that the city has taken its time to add words to it to help people understand it.
The discussion in St. Augustine takes place a year after several communities in Florida debated and ultimately removed Confederate monuments.
Nowhere was the topic more discussed than in Hillsborough County, where the county commission initially voted to keep a controversial statue that had stood in front of its courthouse for nearly a century. A month later, it voted to remove it, and then a month after that changed course again, voting to keep it in place unless the public could finance half of the $280,000 required to remove it (which they did, raising the sum less than 48 hours after that third vote.)
Save Southern Heritage, an advocacy group in support of Confederate monuments, released a statement on Sunday criticizing Rev. Rawls protest on the fourth of July, claiming that a “study” of the march revealed that half of the protestors were from out of town. The group raised similar objections regarding citizens who protested the Confederate monument in Hillsborough County.
State and local governments have removed at least 110 publicly-supported Confederate monuments and symbols since the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina that saw Dylann Roof kill nine African-Americans in a church, but more than 1,700 remain, according to a report published last month by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
When asked if he believes tonight’s meeting might be contentious, Professor Butler said there’s no way to appeal to everyone’s interpretation of what the Confederate monument represents.
“I want to appeal to those who want to understand the history as presented through as objective a prism as possible given the issue,” he says.