The Confederate soldier statue in downtown Gainesville that has drawn a lot of controversy since last year will not be relocated anytime soon.
The Veterans Service Advisory Board unanimously decided that Old Joe, the statue’s nickname, should not be moved from its current location outside of the Alachua County Administration Office.
The century-old figure has been the subject of heated debate since the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. After the shooter’s association with white supremacy and confederate symbols was revealed, multiple monuments like Old Joe received a lot of negative attention.
The statue sits on a pillar which reads, “In Memory of the Confederate Dead,” with a confederate flag engraved below the lettering.
Protesters has issue with celebrating the Confederate flag on public property while proponents of the statue’s current location argue that Old Joe is a memorial to civil war veterans and not a statement about slavery.
Seber Newsome, one of the six people who came to the meeting to defend the statue, drove two hours from Yulee in order to attend it. He originally heard about the statue through the organization Save Southern Heritage Florida.
Ever since Newsome discovered his civil war veteran ancestry, he has been defending southern heritage and confederate monuments throughout Florida. He agrees that the statues do not in any way promote slavery, but rather serve as metaphorical tombstones for those soldiers.
“They’re not there to honor ideologies or lost causes. They’re there to honor the soldiers. Period. That’s it,” Newsome said.
Several solutions have been presented to the Alachua County Commission Board, but none of them have been approved. One of the solutions proposed was donating the statue to the Matheson History Museum in order to give the sensitive topic more context in a more appropriate setting. However, the museum’s board declined the offer twice due to the costly burden of accepting the statue.
The county commissioners reached out to members of the Veterans Service Advisory Board a couple of months ago asking their input on whether the statue should be moved. After two months of deliberation, the board hopes the county commissioners will respect its final decision to keep the statue in place.
Matthew Burke, American Legion representative of the Veteran’s Services Advisory Board, said the issue boils down to patriotism, heritage and the history of America. Burke said the board discussed possibly updating the existing placard to include more context about the statue, but they also want to make sure it remains a historical marker.
“We agreed that what that statue represents is not slavery, the abolishment of slavery or the civil war, but it represents the people — the Confederate soldiers who perished in the civil war,” Burke said. “We want to be able to remember them and leave that legacy for our children and grandchildren.”
Burke said that his decision had nothing to do with color, race, religion, sex or orientation of any nature, but instead, it was based on patriotism and history. However, he said he is also against associating the Confederate flag with images of hate and supremacy.
“You can’t use a symbol to define hatred, hatred is something in somebody’s heart. The Confederate flag does not represent hate; it’s the people behind that with the notion,” Burke said. “I know a lot of good country boys and girls who fly that flag who don’t portray any type of hate. They’re good, Jesus-fearing folk, but unfortunately there are some out there who put a distaste in people’s mouth over that flag and what the south represents.”
Faye Williams, a community organizer and longtime opposer to the statue, was unaware of the board’s decision until Tuesday afternoon.
Williams said she believes donating the statue to the museum is still the best solution and that fundraising the required funds should not be an issue. She said the burden of financing the move does not need to be placed on the museum and that plenty of people have already displayed an interest to help.
Williams said the fight to move the statue is not over.
“I’m not really shocked,” Williams said. “I guarantee you — given the present situation with Donald Trump and the anger we are feeling right now in this city, I suggest that the county commissioners step up and do what they’re supposed to do. This is not right. It didn’t have to happen this way.”