In My Opinion

In Florida, when it comes to race and the Confederacy, the past is never past

The students voted to call their new high school Valhalla, which would lend alliteration and context to the "Valhalla Vikings." Mindful of the nearby neighborhood, the superintendent of education preferred to name it Westconnett High School.

The Duval County School Board also entertained a third suggestion, from a powerful special interest group.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy won the day. Of course. It was 1959 in segregated Jacksonville. The christening of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School became yet another of the era’s ugly political gestures meant to signal whites – and warn blacks – that local elected officials would not abide agitators meddling with “our southern way of life.”

The vote went 4-0 in favor of Old South defiance.

Last week, the Duval School Board voted 7-0 in belated recognition that the Civil War has ended and the time has come to relegate icons of the Confederacy and Jim Crow to museums. The name of the famously ruthless military tactician, slave trader and onetime Ku Klux Klan leader was excised from the school house.

Not that neo-Confederates are inclined to accept this new reality without a tussle. They’ve fought to keep the Confederate flag flying over public places, like the capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina. They’ve kept it incorporated in the design of state flags in Mississippi and Georgia, and, if not quite so blatantly, in those of Alabama and Florida.

The day after Thanksgiving, Georgia state workers outraged southerners nostalgic for segregation by quietly moving the 12-feet-tall bronze statute of white supremacist Tom Watson from the capitol grounds to a nearby park. At the turn of the last century, the Georgia congressman whipped up white voters with vicious, hateful, lunatic diatribes against blacks, Catholics, Jews (“thick-lipped rakes who glut their eyes upon handsome Gentile women.”) His newspaper argued that lynching blacks should be legal. That blacks should not be allowed to vote. He was among the Georgia politicians responsible for the infamous 1915 Atlanta lynching of a Jewish factory worker, Leo Frank, on the flimsy evidence that this “member of the Yankee Jewish aristocracy,” as Watson called him, had raped and murdered a 13-year-old Anglo girl.

Yet, Watson has his admirers, who were aghast to discover that his statute, with the inscription, “defender of right,” had been relocated down the street. Georgia State Rep. Tommy Benton denounced Georgia’s surrender to “political correctness.” Benton introduced a bill that would outlaw moving historic monuments, arguing that “if you start taking down every monument because you find one or two things you don't particularly like about that person, there won't be any monuments left.” Though even a middling historian could count more than one or two things not to like about Tom Watson.

A similar bill was passed this year in Tennessee, where state legislators were upset that the Memphis City Council, representing a town that’s 63 percent black, five percent Hispanic, two-percent Asian, voted in February to re-name Confederate Park, Jefferson Davis Park and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to Memphis Park, Mississippi River Park and Health Sciences Park. The name changes brought a lawsuit and about 75 Ku Klux Klan members marching through Memphis streets in September, protesting the relegation of their greatest hero, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest’s champions were raising hell in Jacksonville last week before the school board vote, complaining that the board members were trying to stomp out their southern heritage. They argued that Forrest’s affiliation with the Klan was equivocal, though the KKK marchers in Memphis sure didn’t think so.

Forrest’s apologists in Duval County also argued that the general was not responsible for the infamous massacre of captured black Union soldiers after his troops stormed Fort Pillow, Tenn. in 1864. Except other Union soldiers’ accounts of the indiscriminate murder of black prisoners were corroborated in a graphic letter written by Confederate cavalry sergeant. Achilles Clark to his sister, “The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded Negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”

The Jacksonville high school named for the architect of that war crime is now 61 percent black. “This is not the will of the students,” said Nikolai Vitti, the current Duval superintendent, the son of Italian and Argentinian immigrants. Vitti told the school board that students at Forrest High had voted in favor of the name change.

Yet another skirmish in Florida’s 2013 uncivil war broke out earlier this month in Lake City over a shocking, shocking proposal from the Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. They want permission from state officials to erect a memorial to the Union war dead at the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, 50 miles west of Jacksonville. The Union descendants noted that “there are no battlefield monuments to Union soldiers or regiments on the 100 battlefield and there are three Confederate monuments erected on the site by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”

The battlefield, encompassed by the Osceola National Forest, was the site of Florida’s bloodiest Civil War confrontation on Feb. 20, 1864. Union troops, before retreating, suffered 203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing. Confederates counted 93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing.

A request for a union memorial would hardly seem all that controversial, except the Civil War apparently remains unresolved in those parts.

Another batch of descendants, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, called for “the second battle of Olustee” to beat back the notion of a union marker. Commander Michael Givens of Charleston notified his members: “Compatriots, a new heritage attack has been launched at Olustee.” This “monument to invading Federal forces,” Givens warned, with a Freudian flourish, would be “a large, black Darth-Vaderesque shaft that will disrupt the hallowed ground where Southern blood was spilled in defense of Florida.”

At a rowdy meeting in Lake City with state park officials this month, anti-Union memorial protestors broke out in a spontaneous rendition of Dixie. (Led, in a scene nearly too weird to contemplate, by a black neo-Confederate waving the Confederate battle flag “like a conductors baton,” according to Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.)

House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, better known as the NRA’s point man in the Florida legislature, promised to use his clout to stop this affront to the old Confederacy. “There is a sacred trust that's being violated when you go in and change an historic site from the way it was commemorated by those who established it,” Baxley said. He promised to introduce his own version of a bill making it illegal to mess with these sacred patches.

Still, it’s a little strange that folks from Florida, of all the southern states, get so riled up over their Confederate heritage. There’s not much. (Although both the Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, and Jefferson Davis’ birthday, June 3, are defined in Florida statutes as “legal holidays.”) When the state joined the secessionists, Florida’s population was barely 140,000. More than 60,000 of those residents were slaves, whose modern day ancestors, I’m guessing, aren’t much offended by some “large, black, Darth-Vadereque shaft” memorializing the Union losses at Olustee.

Ancestors of the 80,000 non-slaves, mostly white, who lived in Florida at the outbreak of the Civil War have long since been overwhelmed by immigrants and their offspring from Yankee states and foreign nations.

Besides, a number of the union soldiers who fought at Olustee that day 150 years ago were themselves Florida residents – blacks liberated from local farms and recruited into the three black regiments assigned to the federal forces aiming to cut off southern supply lines to Florida beef and produce. (Confederate troops considered the use of black soldiers, well, beyond the pale.).

The aftermath of Olustee brought reports of the kind of racist killings seen later that year at Fort Pillow. William Frederick Penniman of the 4th Georgia Calvary, in his 1901 memoir, described how Confederate troops systematically executed wounded blacks left on the battlefield. “The next morning I had occasion to go over the battlefield again quite early, before the burial squads began their work, when the results of the shooting of the previous night became quite apparent. Negroes, and plenty of them, whom I had seen lying all over the field wounded, and as far as I could see, many of them moving around from place to place, now without a motion, all were dead. If a Negro had a shot in the shin another was sure to be in the head.”

Hard to understand how modern Floridians could judge such a “hallowed” killing field too sacred to raise a monument to those union dead. Some of them Floridians. Except, of course, they were black Floridians.

Writing about these romanticized remembrances of “our sacred southern heritage,” demands that inevitable quote from William Faulkner, circa 1950, from Requiem for a Nun. "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

In Florida, the past isn’t dead. It’s just that the inconvenient stuff of the past – slavery, massacres, lynching, the century-long reign of Jim Crow – has been conveniently redacted.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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