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After fierce debate, Hillsborough Commissioners vote to keep controversial Confederate statue

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

After three hours of intense debate, the Hillsborough County Commission decided to keep a Confederate monument that has stood outside of the Hillsborough County Courthouse Annex for more than a century.

Commissioners also approved Wednesday a plan to enhance the statue of a soldier by adding a painted mural celebrating diversityon a wall behind it.

The 4-3 vote was a bitter defeat for Commissioner Les Miller, the lone black member of the BOCC, who announced earlier this month he believed the time has come when the statue, titled “Memoria In Aeterna,” needed to go.

“We can’t change history, but we can change time,” Miller said after more than three dozen people spoke out both in support and in opposition to removing the statue. “It’s time to take that monument down. It represents divisiveness, it represents an era of bondage against African-American people. It represents when African-American and black people were not even considered human beings, and that is wrong.”

Miller has vowed to take the monument down ever since he was a law student walking into the courthouse back in 1976. But it wasn’t meant to be.

His proposal came at the same time that other local governments in the South are voting to remove such memorials of the Civil War. On Tuesday, the city of Orlando, after renewed public outcry, began the process of removing a Confederate “Johnny Reb” statue from Lake Eola Park, relocating it to nearby Greenwood Cemetery. That statue also was built in 1911.

Wednesday’s vote by the board was a reversal of previous recent actions affecting Confederate artifacts in the county.

After the assassination of nine black parishioners two years ago at a historic African-American church in South Carolina, the commission voted to remove the Third National Flag of the Confederacy from the County Center in downtown Tampa. In 2007, the board voted to stop honoring Southern Heritage Month, which eventually resulted in the raising of what has been called the world’s largest Confederate battle flag near Interstates 4 and 275. The flag remains there to this day.

But unlike other remnants from the Civil War, this monument — paid for by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1910 — has never previously been the source of discussion until now.

The board also supported a motion by Commission Chair Stacy White to protect all of Hillsborough’s war memorials from future removal.

Commissioner Victor Crist said he had done a lot of “soul searching” in the weeks since Miller announced his proposal to remove the Confederate monument. Crist said he wanted to find a way to bring the community together. That’s when he unveiled his plan for county staff to prepare a budget and design for a diversity mural, titled “United We Stand,” to be painted on the 10-foot high, 75-foot wide wall standing behind the monument.

It was different from Crist’s original proposal to add additional statues to the memorial, as he told FloridaPolitics.com about two weeks ago.

But Crist said Wednesday that adding figures would have been ultimately cost prohibitive. To make his case, he aired a 90-second video to unveil how the plan would look.

When making his argument on why the monument should not be removed, White opted not to use his own words, but instead reading extensive passages from recent editorials opposing the removal of the monument written by Patrick Manteiga, the editor and publisher of La Gaceta, which he described as “arguably the most liberal newspaper in our region.”

White added that removing the statue would be fiscally irresponsible since it would cost approximately $130,000.

Regarding public speakers, the debate was mixed with supporters and opponents of removing the monument.

“The cause to remove Confederate monuments is only the beginning, and the removal of our Confederate monuments has become a crazed, obsession for radical leftists to destroy our heritage, our history and to erase our ancestor’s history,” said Lithia resident Daniel Nelson.

“The very conversation we are having here today that shows, that in some respects, Hillsborough County and Tampa have yet fully to leave the darker heritage of their past behind,” said Terence Wolfe, a Tampa resident. “The monument is deeply offensive to anyone who knows how to decode its various messages, you cannot glorify a cause without glorifying the essential practices that cause existed to defend.”

With emotions running high, several times White had to lecture the crowd to be respectful of others who were speaking.

“I don’t understand how you can say that all lives matter when that is in the dedication to that monument, at the need of the day, the Confederacy fought for the wrong side,” said Devon Cheeves, a 27-year-old black woman, her voice quivering. “We do not erect monuments in favor of those who fought on the wrong side … We don’t erect monuments to Saddam Hussein, when we won the war in Iraq, we tore down his statue, because we knew it was wrong and on the wrong side of history, so I am all about history, but you don’t need a monument on public property.”

That prompted a mocking from St. Petersburg attorney Andy Strickland.

“Oh my goodness, all that emotion — that’s what liberalism is, emotion,” he said disdainfully. “I feel sorry for our liberal friends. They see race and racism everywhere from Skittles to global warming to snow to coffee to the Republican Party.”

Commissioners Pat Kemp and Al Higginbotham joined Miller in voting to remove the monument.

Higginbotham, partially paralyzed since 1995, said he would never know what it’s like to be discriminated against for the color of his skin, but knows “what it’s like to be treated differently because of a disability. I do know what it’ like to be treated differently because people don’t think that I’m smart. People don’t think that I’m capable.”

Before the vote, Elvis Bagott, a 29-year-old black man running for the District 5 County Commission seat next year, said moving the monument would change nothing from an individual perspective.

“But from a government level,” he said, “it’s setting an example that we as a body don’t tolerate, nor do we condone racism, nor do we condone what it was designed for in that time. We don’t want government locally to have anything associated that will segregate or isolate people, because we represent them all.”

Ultimately, the board opted not to go that way. Commissioners White, Crist, Sandy Murman and Ken Hagan voted to maintain the monument.

Later, the board approved a proposal by Murman to direct $250,000 to the Tampa History Museum Center, along with the Hillsborough County School Board and the county’s “Safe and Sound” violence preventive program, for developing a curriculum to teach children about history and respect for everyone in the community.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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