While most people were focusing on getting their power restored and cleaning up debris after Hurricane Irma barreled through the region, a maintenance crew hired by Hillsborough County physically removed the controversial 106-year-old Confederate monument that stood in front of the county courthouse annex since 1953.
Unlike other communities throughout the South that have removed such monuments, there was considerable doubt whether that would happen after the county commission voted to maintain the monument in its current spot, then voted to remove it, then decided it would stay unless the private sector could raise $140,000 within 30 days to pay for half the cost of moving it.
Though that private fundraising campaign began weeks earlier, things were looking bleak when the BOCC gave Tom Scarritt that hard deadline, he admitted Saturday night.
The Tampa attorney was recognized by the Hillsborough County Democratic Party over the weekend with their Chairs Award for Outstanding Public Service for taking on the role of raising the private funds to move the statue at the party’s annual Kennedy-King Dinner at the Tampa Downtown Hilton.
“People weren’t really buying into my view,” Scarritt admitted about the early days of fundraising to move the statue.
While he personally thought it was a great compromise to take the statue and put it in a private cemetery where other Confederate soldiers had been buried, he quickly learned that sentiment wasn’t shared by warring camps.
“I went to the black churches, and I said, ‘I really need you to participate and contribute’ and they said, ‘we want to bust this thing to pieces. I will never contribute money to moving it,’ ” he recalled.
The Confederate side also gave him the cold shoulder.
“I said I was a seventh-generation Floridian. I’m a Southerner who attended the University of the South (in Sewanee, Tennessee). I’ve studied southern politics, southern history, southern literature. I’m a proud Southerner, and they’re like, ‘get to the point.'”
When he said he was looking for money to move the statue, he received blank stares, as the advocates for the statue wanted no part in helping to remove the monument.
His promise of raising funds to move the statue was in trouble, he thought.
Then came the violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists showed up to protest the city’s plans to remove a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general.
“People realized that Charlottesville could happen right here in our community and the money started flowing in,” he recalled.
Still, the Tampa Bay area establishment resisted.
Four days later, after Scaritt came before the BOCC to tell them how the private campaign was coming along, the board stunningly reversed their decision from the previous month to move the statue, and imposed a hard deadline of 30 days for Scaritt to raise $140,000, or else the monument wasn’t going anywhere.
Watching CNN that night when he heard about the board’s decision was Tampa businessman Bob Gries, who ended up calling Mayor Bob Buckhorn the following day to say he would kick in $50,000. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce kicked in another $70,000, and the three professional sports franchises in town that did not respond to Scarritt’s earlier entreaties contributed as well.
“We can solve any problem regardless of whether or not our government fails,” Scarritt proclaimed on Saturday, with victory at hand. “We, the people, can solve our own problems. We just have to believe in ourselves.”
Scarritt gave specific praise to Erin Aebel, Karen Buesing and his wife, Linda Scarritt, as well as the more than 700 who contributed between $5 to $500 at the GoFundMe website created to take the private donations.
Advocates for keeping the Confederate monument in Hillsborough County are pursuing the case in court. Their emergency motion for a temporary restraining order to keep the statue on Pierce Street was rejected by a Hillsborough judge earlier this month, but the lawsuit remains alive for now.
Other local Democrats who won honors on Saturday night include health care advocate Karen Clay, who received the Monroe Mack Award, and former state legislator, state education commissioner and USF President Betty Castor, who took the Helen Gordon Davis Award for Lifetime Achievement.