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Matheson Museum Declines County Commissioners’ Donation

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After a 1 hour and 30 minute discussion, the Matheson Museum’s Board of Directors have decided not to accept the Alachua County Commissioners’ donation of ‘Old Joe.’ The 111-year-old statue will remain in its current location until county commissioners determine another alternative. Photo by Edwin Exaus/ WUFT News.

It is back to the drawing board for the Alachua County Commissioners.

In a 9-to-2 vote by the Matheson History Museum’s Board of Directors, ‘Old Joe’ the Confederate soldier statue, located outside the Alachua County Administration building, will not be calling the historic museum its new home.

The Alachua County Board of Commissioners offered to donate the statue to the Matheson History Museum on Sept. 22 in a 3-to-2 vote, but the museum declined the offer due to the problems it could cause.

“There was a whole range of concerns. We had a fairly unattractive draft agreement that was sent over by the county,” said Bob Ackerman, a board member for the museum since April.

“In addition we were concerned the museum would, if not, be technically liable for raising the funds to move it—that those funds would still basically come out of our fundraising efforts,” he said

After discussing the history of the statue, the county commission meeting and the potential benefits, board members raised red flags when they realized that the museum would have to cover all expenses for moving the statue.

With new projects underway, such as the addition of an archive and reading room, members did not want to add another costly project.

According to Ackerman, they also felt obligated to contextualize the statute by adding more statues and exhibits to broaden the historical perspective.

“But for us the key issue is that we would be responsible for the expense,” Ackerman said.

Alachua County Commissioner Mike Byerly said he wanted the donation to be accepted and saw it as a way to educate the community.

“The best place for this monument is in a museum that can put it into context,” said Commissioner Byerly.

He said the statue’s current location is not in a good spot for people to reflect on it from a historical standpoint.

“They are not in the mindset where they will be thinking about history as they’re driving past this busy intersection,” he said.

Since the museum did not accept the donation, county commissioners will once again have to discuss where it will be placed. The Matheson was the only place considered.

“We haven’t had a discussion about what the alternative sites might be,” Byerly said. “I haven’t begun to think about that.”

Jesse Arost, an activist in the Gainesville community, said she was under the impression that the Matheson was going to take the statue based on a previous discussion at the September commission meeting.

“That statue, I think, is a living celebration and glorification of white supremacy, which is one of the greatest evils to have ever been invented by humanity,” Arost said.

“So as long as it exists there on public land, it is fulfilling the purpose that really racist people put it there to fulfill—to glorify white supremacy,” he said.

According to Steven Noll, a history senior lecturer at the University of Florida, the Confederate statue was symbolic of white control. During the time of Jim Crow laws, it served as a physical representation of white power rather than honoring African-Americans that helped in the Reconstruction.

“Race relations in Gainesville were tense,” Noll said. “Gainesville had a significant black presence during Reconstruction and was a center for black activism.”

“I don’t want the statue to be taken down. We need to address the fact that this stuff happened,” Noll said. “If we get rid of the statue, we can’t just say it didn’t happen and everything will be wonderful.”

The fate of ‘Old Joe’ is still unclear. It could potentially be moved to another site or remain in its current location outside of the administrative building. County commissioners will ultimately decide.

“Our vote was not that [the statue] should stay where it is; it was that it shouldn’t come to the Matheson,” said Ackerman.

About Edwin Exaus

Edwin is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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