TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — In a Florida city proud of its place in American history, the anguished discussion about how to move forward from its dark past reached a significant milestone Monday, when leaders of the country's oldest city decreed that some remnants of its Confederate past were too shameful to sanctify in its hallowed central plaza.
With much of the country still reeling from the police killing of George Floyd, a divided St. Augustine City Commission moved to relocate a Confederate memorial that has been a fixture in its historic central plaza for 140 years.
“I don’t think that memorial represents who we are as a community we aspire to be,” said Mayor Tracy Upchurch, a former state legislator who teaches law and history at Flagler College.
The decision came after weeks of demonstrations across the country — including mass gatherings in the historic Florida city that drew hundreds — to protest racism and police brutality against Black people. The protests were triggered by the death of Floyd, who was Black, after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his neck for several minutes.
“George Floyd’s death is more than a conversation about police brutality. It is more than a conversation about Confederate monuments. It is a call to us to face with open hearts the racism that’s existed in our country since its founding. African slaves have been here from the very beginning, and we’re still struggling with these issues,” the mayor said, just before the commission voted 3-2 to remove the structure.
The memorial, a towering obelisk bearing the names of Confederate soldiers, has been a key focus of the outrage in St. Augustine, a city of 15,000 that traces its origins to 1565, when Spanish explorers established an outpost along the northern Atlantic coast of what is now Florida.
The monument sits in the Plaza de la Constitucion, the historic center of colonial St. Augustine because of its proximity to its Catholic cathedral and government building.
“The plaza is literally our heart and soul — and that’s where this obelisk stands, in the center of our community,” the mayor said.
Over the years, the plaza has become a prominent venue for showcasing the city’s history and is visited by thousands of tourists annually.
The memorial is to be moved, perhaps brick by brick, to another location. But exactly where won’t be formally discussed until a decision has been made on how to remove it.
The commission made its decision after nine hours of testimony, including reading aloud more than 300 emails that illustrated the clear division among many of the city’s residents. The meeting was held virtually because of the coronavirus outbreak, although scores of townspeople showed up in person at City Hall to voice their opinions on the matter, even though commissioners were not there themselves.
Some townsfolk said there is no straddling the fence when it came to the racism. They consider the memorial a symbol of slavery and the oppression of African Americans.
Others see it as a remembrance of the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. The obelisk was placed in the plaza in 1879 and is one of the region’s oldest Confederate monuments.
“It was not a Jim Crow kind of monument. It was a tombstone,” said Commissioner Roxanne Horvath, who opposed moving the memorial.
She called the memorial one of many dominoes. "We could open up the door to many, many monuments in this city being questioned," she said. “Our city is all about history.”
Horvath expressed concern that the possibly fragile structure could be destroyed and the historic plaza damaged. In arguing that the memorial be left in its current place, she suggested it be transformed into a memorial honoring other veterans of war, including African Americans who gave their lives.
City commissioners had considered moving the Confederate memorial before, including two years ago — after white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire on African American churchgoers in South Carolina three years earlier.
Instead, they installed plaques at the foot of the monument that sought to put the memorial in the context of slavery and oppression.
But in the end, a majority of the city’s commissioners concluded that the proposal to transform the memorial could not erase the pain the memorial represents to Blacks and others who abhor slavery.