St. Augustine commissioners vote to remove Confederate monument

3-2 vote comes after hours of public comment, deliberation

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – City commissioners on Monday night voted 3-2 in favor of moving the Confederate monument from the Plaza de la Constitucion in downtown St. Augustine.

The St. Augustine City Commission will decide at a later date where the monument will be moved to, but there was talk about relocating it to a cemetery or private property.

St. Augustine Mayor Tracy Upchurch, who voted to move the monument, said moving it isn’t the answer for solving social justice issues, but it’s a step in the right direction.

That removal came after a city commission meeting that lasted 10 hours.

The vote came after commissioners heard about eight hours of public comment and deliberated for an hour and a half over the fate of the monument, which was built in 1872 to remember the Confederate soldiers killed in the Civil War.

During Monday’s virtual meeting, which started around 10:15 a.m., dozens of people spoke to the City Commission in-person at a podium and on the phone during public comment, offering opinions on both sides of the argument. In addition, 350 emails were read into the public record.

Many who wanted to keep the monument in place said it honors soldiers who did not receive proper burials. Those who wanted it removed said it’s an ugly reminder of an error of slavery and oppression.

“With a straight face I’m saying to you this morning, if you don’t take these monuments down, you’re a racist. There is no straddling the fence,” said the Rev. Anthony Daniel, pastor of Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fernandina Beach.

The decision over the future of the monument comes at a time when the country is wrestling with race relations and police reform. Some told the commissioners the monument is an important part of history.

“Should not be erased or eliminated because some people want to punish white people for the past,” one person said.

Others said the statue is a symbol of white supremacy.

“And certainly for Black Americans, we’ve always known the true story. It’s not a choice between heritage or hate, it’s always been a heritage of hate,” said Earl Johnson Jr., of Jacksonville Beach.

Groups gathered near the monument Monday in protest and there was shouting for a few minutes but overall the demonstrations were peaceful. The groups were listening to public comment through a loudspeaker. Later in the day, most people got out of the heat to await the decision. People later returned to the area of the monument after the vote, and crews could be seen putting up a fence to place plywood to cover the monument.

The monument has drawn curiosity among visitors for generations, and the battle over its fate is not new. In 2018, a committee came up with a compromise and added plaques at the foot of the monument to put the memorial in the context of slavery.

On Monday, as protesters waited during the meeting, a federal lawsuit was filed against the city of St. Augustine and various city officials over the contextualization or removal of the monument. The lawsuit says any action like that would violate the First Amendment rights of the people who put it there.

One of the plaintiffs is HK Edgerton, a former NAACP president in Asheville, North Carolina, who says he is a descendent of a Black Confederate soldier.

Other plaintiffs include the St. Augustine Tea Party, the Ladies Memorial Association (the organization that first put up the monument), Sons of Confederate Veterans and Save Southern Heritage, Inc. Florida.

They also filed a request for a temporary restraining order to stop the city in the event the decision was made to take down the monument.

VIEW: St. Augustine monument lawsuit | Injunction

Several people reminded commissioners that removal is a bell that can’t be unrung.

“The memorial cannot be moved without destroying it. This idea of moving it is equivalent to destroying it,” one person said.

Ahead of the vote, Upchurch said if the City Commission did decide to relocate it, the process will be methodical.

"It's not going to be easy. It is the second oldest Confederate monument in the state," Upchurch said. "You can't just bring in a crane and haul it away."

He also said it will not disappear in the middle of the night.

But removal is exactly what many protesters wanted to happen.

“I just happen to be a woman that’s married to a law enforcement officer. I’m a mother of two Black children, of two Black sons, and so it’s really important for me to be here during this time, during my lifetime, to say those statues have to go,” one woman said.

The contentious battle over a confederate statue in downtown St. Augustine ramped up Monday, as the city commission consided removing a monument in the Plaza de la Constitucion.

Upchurch told News4Jax he’s aware many people feel strongly on both sides of the aisle.

A man named James declined to give his last name but told News4Jax he believes the monument represents racial injustice.

"This is a slave marker. It shouldn't even be up here, it's wrong," James said. "All these monuments they got up here, these confederate things, they've got to come down."

James, who was born and raised in St. Augustine, said he wanted to see the monument moved off city property.

"Well, they all should go to a museum. They shouldn't be out here," James said. "All it does is start problems with people."

Demonstrators over the last couple of weeks had similar sentiments. Sandi Warth disagrees.

"No, I don't think it should be removed," Warth said. "It's part of history. They don't teach history in school anymore."

Warth sees the monument every day while on her morning walk and believes it stands as a tribute to the fallen.

"I had a brother who went to Vietnam for two tours, came home, and slept in my mother's bathtub," Warth said. "And they did. They all should be honored."

The Plaza de la Constitucion is home to a second memorial which stands at the west end of the plaza in memory of Confederate General William Loring. The Loring monument is owned by the state of Florida and is managed by the University of Florida. The city has no jurisdiction over it, and its fate was not up for discussion.

About the Authors:

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

Storytelling is at the heart of what Alicia loves most about television news and she is thrilled to be a part of the News4Jax team.