The 20-foot Confederate monument on Putnam County's courthouse lawn bears an inscription on the side: “The principles for which they fought will live eternally.” (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Putnam Board Of County Commissioners Voted To Move A Confederate Monument. Now They’re Considering An Ordinance To Protect It.

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On Confederate Memorial Day in 1924, the cornerstone was laid for a monument that, nearly a century later, has caused a twisting, emotional, yearlong debate in Putnam County with no clear end in sight.

The 20-foot statue of a Confederate soldier that towers over the county courthouse lawn bears an inscription on the side: “The principles for which they fought will live eternally.”

Over the past year, the Board of County Commissioners voted to move the monument, then placed conditions on its relocation that activists claimed were in bad faith and opted not to meet, and now — in a move many feel is in opposition to their initial vote — plan to workshop on Tuesday a veterans’ memorial protection ordinance that could make it harder to move.

What principles the monument refers to and where it should be kept remain disputed, with both sides accusing the board of “kicking the can down the road” and avoiding a clear decision.

The ordinance

Commissioner Jeff Rawls, the only opposing vote in the original decision to move the Confederate monument last year, proposed the protection ordinance at a June commission workshop.

Commissioner Larry Harvey suggested it be broadened to include all types of historical markers, similar to the St. Petersburg ordinance included in the workshop agenda as a possible template.

But by the time the draft of Putnam’s own ordinance was released, it had been narrowed to only markers of U.S. presidents and people involved in military action on U.S. territory or in the U.S. armed forces.

The ordinance draft prohibits the relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, rededicating, or any disturbance of such markers. A violation could be prosecuted as a second degree misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 and county jail up to 60 days.

Only entities who control the public property on which the marker is located may petition the commission for an exception. And, unless the commission decides it’s a public necessity, no tax dollars can be used.

In other words, it would be harder to move the Confederate monument from the courthouse lawn, despite the commission’s earlier vote to do so.

Harvey said this isn’t a one-issue ordinance, but is about enforcing one of the county’s core values: historical preservation. The Confederate monument, Harvey said, just spotlit the need for such an ordinance, which would give law enforcement more “teeth” to protect historical markers.

“Once we find out in government that there’s an issue, then we try to take care of that,” Harvey said. “So, you know, if law enforcement is telling us that it’s hard for them to protect certain things, because we don’t have the correct mechanisms in place to do that, then we know better and we should do that.”

Col. Joseph Wells said the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office has not been involved in this ordinance, and he doesn’t remember any instances of vandalism against historical sites in Putnam County.

“Some monuments, especially Confederate ones, have different meanings to different people and emotions run deep,” Wells said. “But I have been with the sheriff’s office for almost 20 years and do not recall any case of actual vandalism.”

Dar’Nesha Leonard, cofounder of Putnam Alliance for Equity and Justice and a leader in the fight to relocate the statue, questioned the commissioner’s motives.

Dar’Nesha Leonard and Tevel Adams protest in front of the monument on Dec. 19, 2020. (Courtesy of Leonard)

“Nobody’s touched it,” Leonard said. “Nobody’s really given them a reason to have this protection order. I think it’s more of just making a statement. Like, ‘You guys raised a bunch of fuss about the Confederate statue, but we don’t have any plans of moving it, period.’”

Leonard said activists weren’t calling for the monument to be destroyed, just relocated to a veterans memorial or a museum where it could be given more educational context.

Unmentioned in the local discussion is HB1, which Carrie Boyd, Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida policy director, pointed out already gives law enforcement plenty of teeth.

Under HB1, any person who willfully damages a piece of historic property — including any marker that ‘honors or recounts the military service of any past or present’ — can be charged with a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The felony is upped to second-degree with a 15-year max sentence if the object is toppled or destroyed.

Putnam is not unique for considering a monument protection ordinance like this. Boyd said the volume of ordinances like these increased dramatically nationwide after the 2016 presidential election.

And while the language of these ordinances is typically about broad historical preservation, they tend to follow challenges to local Confederate symbols, as was the case in Hillsborough County.

In the five months following the murder of George Floyd, NPR recorded decisions to protect 28 Confederate monuments, while 60 others were taken down.

Fellow cofounder of Putnam Alliance for Equity and Justice, Tevel Adams, has been dwelling on the introduction of the ordinance, which says that protection of such landmarks is necessary to “serve as visible and tangible reminders of the history and heritage of this County, the state and nation.”

Adams sees the ordinance as a wearying sign that the commission hasn’t been listening.

“Since last year,” Adams said, “we’ve been telling them: We don’t want to be reminded of the Civil War. We don’t want to be reminded of slavery. We don’t want to be reminded of what’s been going on for years and years. We don’t want to be reminded of oppression. We don’t want to be reminded of systemic racism.”

He especially doesn’t want to be reminded of these things as he enters the courthouse, a place where people should expect justice and fair treatment.

For Leonard, the discussion of historic preservation is at odds with the recent state ban on critical race theory.

“What history are you wanting to preserve?” Leonard questioned. “Are you just wanting to preserve the history of the Confederacy? Or do you want to talk about all history?”

A mile away from the Confederate monument sits the 84-year-old former building of Central Academy, Florida’s first accredited Black high school. There is almost nothing left of its roof. The windows are boarded. Vines wrap the chimney. Community members have fought for its restoration for many years but have not found the funding.

The old building of Central Academy, Florida’s first accredited Black high school, sits in ruins in Palatka. Community members have fought for its restoration for many years but have not found the funding. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

‘Whose offense is greater?’

The question of what history is being preserved is more complicated than just Black or white. The meaning of the gray uniform of the Confederacy lies at the heart of the debate.

At the cornerstone ceremony in 1924, the Palatka Daily News described elderly Confederate veterans clamoring to touch a sun-faded flag of the 47th Georgia Infantry Regiment riddled with 32 bullet holes. Men and women, the reporter wrote, wept in solidarity.

Members of Palatka’s United Daughters of the Confederacy had imagined and fundraised for the monument. It was for their fathers and their grandfathers, who were dying.

At the forefront of this effort was Susie Lee Walton.

Walton’s great-great-nephew, Billy Townsend, a local historian and former journalist, documented this chapter of Florida history in his book “Age of Barbarity.”

Townsend said the monument’s location overshadowed the WWI monument, which had been placed on the side of the courthouse lawn a few years prior and had nearly as many Black soldiers listed on it as white.

A November 1924 issue of Palatka’s Times-Herald notes the unveiling of the finished monument “to the memory of the heroes of the Confederacy.” (Courtesy of Billy Townsend)

The monument isn’t about historic preservation, Townsend added, because the history it claims to preserve is false.

In 1924, the Lost Cause ideology of the Confederacy predominated among white southerners. The United Daughters of the Confederacy actively promoted it. In this framework, the Confederacy was heroic. It was about states’ rights, not slavery. And slavery itself was often sentimentalized. 

Modern scholarship does not support Lost Cause ideology. The Confederate vice president himself, Alexander H. Stephens, described slavery, and “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man,” as the “foundation” and “cornerstone” of the Confederacy.

During the early 20th century, the United Daughters of the Confederacy gifted portraits of Confederate generals to Palatka’s public school and made efforts to influence which history textbooks were used. Each year, on General Robert E. Lee’s birthday, they presented their version of his life and “great character” to classrooms of schoolchildren.

Townsend said while the monument was erected during the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s resurgence in Florida, it wasn’t directly tied to it. He believes that at the time, the monument was sincerely about nostalgia and honoring family who fought in battle.

Now, he thinks the nostalgia masks a fight to preserve power. Others disagree.

“The monument is about veterans,” Lorraine Carr said to the commission at a November meeting, when the commission was still considering relocating the statue. “About families. About southern families that want to honor their ancestors. There is never any mention of slavery, intimidation, Jim Crow, none of that, in the history of the monument.”

It was a community project that required donations from across multiple towns, Carr stressed.

“Some only had a nickel or a dime, but they gave.”

She wanted their efforts to be preserved.

Districts separate Palatka into strips that radiate out across the county, dividing the votes of Palatka’s residents, roughly half of whom are Black, with the votes of predominantly white residents who live outside the city. Palatka is represented by an all-Black city commission, while the county commission is entirely white. (Putnam County Geographic Information System)

“It offends me and others that we have to remove the monument that honors our families when it’s been there for 96 years,” Carr said to the commission. “Whose offense is greater? Why does their offense outweigh mine?”

Carr’s was one of many fervent pleas from descendents of Confederate veterans, during two hours of public comment, that echoed themes of family and heroism. (WUFT reached out to five of these speakers by phone, email and social media, but those who responded were either unable or declined to speak. Rawls did not respond to four attempts to reach him for an interview over two weeks.)

They outnumbered the people who spoke in favor of relocating the statue.

It’s one reason Harvey, after public comment ended, moved that those wanting the statue to be relocated would need to raise $200,000 in private funds to do so. Rawls suggested it should be raised from within county boundaries, to avoid “outside aggressors coming in here pushing us around.” Goddard proposed a 90-day timeframe to keep the issue from dragging out.

Harvey saw the conditions as a gauge of public feeling.

“There’s 74,500 residents in Putnam County. That’s $2.25 a person, period,” he reasoned in an interview last week, underestimating the per-person cost. “That’s not a heavy lift.”

If enough people in Putnam County wanted the statue moved, the money would be easy to fundraise. Harvey thinks it’s just a vocal few who want the statue moved.

But Julie Crosby, a descendant of the Confederacy who advocated during public comment for the statue’s relocation, said those vocal few represent many. In a county like Putnam with a long history of systemic racism, Crosby said, many Black residents are understandably fearful of speaking out.

Adams, 19, and Leonard, 21, both received death threats after becoming very visible Black faces at the forefront of the push to move the statue. To a lesser degree, their white allies have also been harassed.

“So when the board tries to say this is a few people who have this opinion,” Crosby said, “we know that’s not true.”

‘Between the Lines’

Leigh Merryday Porch couldn’t attend the county commission meetings about the statue or participate in public comment. She couldn’t attend the protests, either. She is the mother of a son with Level 3 autism, the highest needs diagnosis on the spectrum.

But what she could do, she thought, is post her story on Facebook.

Leigh Merryday Porch, surrounded by the graves of her ancestors, holds the will of her fifth-great-grandfather, in which he bequeathed 186 human beings and their descendants to his children, along with cattle, hogs and horses. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Leigh Merryday Porch is a direct descendent of the only two known survivors of the mass deportation of the 400 missing Roswell textile mill-working women and children during the Civil War — an event often used to illustrate it as a war of northern aggression.

“So,” Merryday Porch wrote in the June 9 post, “I’ve got the requisite DNA and am totally qualified to be offended (or not) as a descendant of Confederate soldiers.”

A family history enthusiast, she had found the 1793 will of her fifth-great-grandfather. He was a public servant, a sheriff, and one of the “First Families of North Carolina” before moving to Palatka.

“On the surface, he seems like an ancestor to be proud of, doesn’t he?” she wrote.

“Except that in his will, he ‘bequeaths’ 186 human beings.”

She challenged the need for people to be proud of their ancestry. This ancestor of hers was probably nuanced, she wrote, a product of his culture, likely did some good in his community and was loved by some.

“But ‘honoring’ this Confederate legacy is not something I’m proud of. It’s not gray. It’s wrong.

“The insult is not to the Confederate soldiers’ descendants. It’s an insult to the memory of these 186 people. 186 people with names – who loved, feared, hoped, dreamed, and suffered.”

The will lists the first names of at least 186 “negroes” as property to be passed down, along with their children and their tools. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Merryday Porch believes those fighting to keep the statue where it is are sincere in their emotions and in wanting to honor their ancestors, who they may see as reflections of themselves. War is hell, she said, and some Confederate soldiers may have fought simply because their towns were burning to the ground.

“They don’t want their family to be characterized as slave owners if they come from generations of poor people. And they think that makes them slave owners in some way. I don’t. I just think we chose the wrong side.”

She believes the South belongs to everyone who lives there, including Black people, and there is much to be proud of other than Confederate heritage — hospitality and front porches, bourbon and boiled peanuts, helping your neighbors and sweet old ladies who steal “that baby’s sugar.”

Merryday Porch said her post generated more constructive discussion than she normally sees around this issue.

She believes it’s possible for people to change their minds, even after a lifetime of thinking one way. She knows this because she changed her thinking after nearly 40 years, when her son was born with autism.

“Life ran up, knocked me over on the playground, and broke my glasses, and I was handed a different set of lenses through which to view the world,” Merryday Porch said.

“And when I put those lenses on, not only was I able to see what I was dealing with, I could see other people around me who were also disenfranchised. And it shook me up.”

She is launching a book club for the titles the Putnam County School District recently removed from the summer reading list, starting with Trevor Noah’s book on growing up in apartheid South Africa. She is encouraging liberals and conservatives alike to join, to see what the books are really about. She named the book club “Between the Lines.”

What’s next

Ultimately, leaders of the Putnam Alliance for Equity and Justice decided the conditions placed on the statue’s relocation were disingenuous. There was no structure to the process. The county did not take bids or justify the dollar amount.

Costs to remove similar monuments have varied widely. New Orleans reportedly paid over $2 million to remove four Confederate monuments in 2017, while that same year and for the removal of the same number of monuments, Baltimore paid less than $20,000.

Not having been the ones to place the monument there in the first place, those calling for its relocation don’t think they should be responsible for the cost of moving it.

They did not attempt to meet those conditions, and the deadline passed.

Rebekah Cordova, one of the cofounders of Putnam Alliance for Equity and Justice and chair of the Putnam County Democrats, said they are refocusing their efforts, with a growing and multi-racial coalition.

“We’re going to continue to try to put our energies into what we believe works and what is right. And that’s just to continue to press the political and social organizing systems.”

Leonard believes the relocation of the Confederate statue is inevitable, given how many other places are removing their own.

Below: Explore the Southern Poverty Law Center’s interactive map of confederate symbols on public land, and which have already been removed, renamed or relocated.

A Southern Poverty Law Center Report counted 168 Confederate symbols removed across the United States in 2020, almost all following the murder of George Floyd. The same report found that over 2,100 public Confederate symbols remained on public land, 704 of them monuments.

Commissioners will determine the final language of the ordinance at the workshop on Tuesday at 2 p.m., 2509 Crill Avenue, Suite 100 in Palatka.

About Katie Hyson

Katie Hyson is a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News covering racial and rural inequities in East Gainesville and north central Florida. She can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org. Click here to learn how you can support her reporting.

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