Task force: Context needed for St. Augustine's Confederate memorial

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The debate over what to do with a Confederate memorial that sits in the heart of downtown St. Augustine continues to divide the community, despite the recommendation from a city task force that it should stay.

The Confederate Memorial Contextualization Advisory Committee, a seven-member task force comprised mostly of historians, presented a report Monday to the City Commission, urging city leaders to keep the monument and add some necessary context.

The Plaza de la Constitucion was originally built in 1872 as a way of remembering the Confederate soldiers killed in the Civil War. But like similar monuments in cities across the country, it has become a source of controversy with advocates calling for its removal.

"I don’t think that’s an appropriate position," said City Manager John Regan. "It’s a war memorial. But I also respect that people can look at the same thing and see it differently...  And that’s the purpose of contextualization: to validate that there is another perspective."

The committee’s recommendation included a proposal to add four plaques – Freedom, Sacrifice, Memory and Interpret – to the base of the monument, each of which would provide a different historical perspective for those visiting the memorial.

But not everyone shares Regan’s enthusiasm for the committee’s recommendation. Rev. Ron Rawls, pastor at St. Augustine’s St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, said the memorial is a symbol of hate, with or without plaques.

"It’s not so much about the stones,” said Rawls. "It’s more about the message and why these stones were erected in the types of spaces and the visibility that they were erected in. They were to speak white supremacy and white dominion for years to come."

He said the suggestion to add perspective to the monument misses the mark.

"There’s no way that you can change that story just by a few plaques that you put up there in an attempt to please people," he added.

Wells Todd, an activist with the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, is among those calling for the memorial to be taken down.

"There are no amount of plaques that could go up that would contextualize slavery and 100 years after slavery," said Todd.

Still, there are those who believe the addition of plaques is a fair compromise. That’s the case for Seber Newsome III, an advocate with Save Southern Heritage Florida, a group that has campaigned statewide to keep existing Confederate monuments in place.

"These groups don’t want compromise," said Newsome. "They want to take the monuments down, period. A compromise is contextualizing: tell what the monument is, why it was put there, what it’s about. It’s not about slavery or lost causes or the Jim Crow era."

Regan, meanwhile, contends the addition of plaques is a step in the right direction.

"We all aren’t necessarily going to agree, but our community of St. Augustine is working hard to be able to see each other’s different perspectives," he said.

About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.