After the act of white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville, Va. earlier this month — prompted in part, no doubt, by that city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee — the choice for Southern cities is clearer than ever before.
We can choose to hold fast to the wrong side of history, to cling to relics that glorify a shameful and immoral period in our past, or we can reject them and acknowledge that Confederate symbols are divisive, outdated, and un-American, and have no place in our public spaces in 2017.
Pensacola was under Confederate control for just 16 months, from January 1861 to May 1862. No significant fighting took place here, and what little did ended in defeats for the Confederacy. Nonetheless, Pensacola was not immune to the wave of Confederate revisionism which swept the South after Reconstruction ended — an effort to reframe and romanticize the war as an honorable struggle for the “Southern way of life” and to minimize the role of slavery as the central cause of the war.
In 1889, the city renamed Florida Square, overlooking downtown Pensacola on North Hill, after Confederate general Robert E. Lee — a man with no connection to Pensacola, who only visited the city once, briefly, in 1846. In 1891, a 50-foot Confederate monument was erected in the center of the park, dedicated to the “uncrowned heroes of the Southern Confederacy.”
The monument describes those who took up arms against the United States and fought to preserve the reprehensible institution of chattel slavery in glowing terms: “Their unchallenged devotion and matchless heroism shall continue to be the wonder and inspiration of the ages.”
There is a difference between remembrance and reverence, and it’s inscriptions like that which remind us that the monument in Lee Square is not simply some innocent historical marker or war memorial. It’s a monument to treason; a celebration of a wicked ideology rooted in hate; a repudiation of the fundamental American idea and promise that all men are created equal.
It’s especially out of place in Pensacola, a city which was built on multiculturalism, its rich heritage shaped by European nations like the Spanish, British, and French; by whites, blacks, and creoles; and by the Native Americans who lived and prospered along the Gulf Coast before the rest of the world knew it existed.
Symbols are important, and the monuments which cities choose to erect and maintain in their public spaces say much about those cities’ values. These monuments have never been symbols of some abstract idea of Southern pride or heritage. They are and always have been symbols of white supremacy. It’s why every Southern city has a monument to the Confederacy but few have monuments to the achievements of their black citizens, much less to the hundreds of thousands of black Southerners who lived and died in bondage, enduring lives of fear, misery, and unspeakable brutality.
Studies have shown that many of these monuments were erected in the years following Reconstruction, as white supremacists regained control of state and local governments, ousted black and creole officials, and began laying the groundwork for segregationist “Jim Crow” laws. Pensacola was no exception. During Reconstruction, black Pensacolians served as mayor, city council members, and other government officials. But in 1885, then-Governor Edward A. Perry, a former Confederate general, convinced state legislators to revoke Pensacola’s city charter, replacing the elected council with an appointed, all-white city government. Six years later, the Confederate monument in Lee Square was erected, and Perry — who died in 1889 — was among the three men specifically honored on the monument.
Put simply, the Lee Square monument was erected by racist men and women, in reverence of an immoral rebellion, and in furtherance of a fundamentally un-American ideology which has no place in the public square in 2017. It’s history that belongs in classrooms and museums, not upon a pedestal on a hill atop our city.
The Civil War has been over for 152 years. It is time — far past time, really — for Pensacola to follow in the footsteps of other great Southern cities which have repudiated these monuments and moved on.
Reasonable people recognize that the question is no longer whether or not the monument should remain, but rather when it should come down and where, if anywhere, it should be moved. We urge the mayor and city council to act quickly and to demonstrate strong moral and political leadership. Let us strive to bind up our city’s wounds; to show the world that Pensacola is a city where all are welcome; to close the door on a painful past in favor of a brighter future.