For 113 years, the downtown statue of a Confederate soldier has faced north.
But 2017 will likely be its last year occupying the corner of University and Main, as the county commission voted 4-1 on May 23 to declare the statue “surplus property” to be offered to the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The Kirby Smith 202 chapter of the Daughters has 60 days to decide whether to accept the statue and 60 more days remove it at their own expense.
They have not yet decided whether to accept or reject the statue, said Nansea Markham Miller, president of the chapter.
County Commissioner Mike Byerly, who authored the passing motion, said that if the Daughters turn the statue down, declaring the statue surplus gives county staff the discretion to dispose of it. The statue would most likely be offered to private groups or publicly auctioned.
“If absolutely no one wants it, we will scrap it,” Byerly said.
The vote was two years in the making. This is how we got here:
The statue—depicting a nameless Confederate soldier—was installed on county property in 1904. It is one of many similar-looking statues that were produced in the North (the downtown statue is from Salem, Ohio) and bought by neo-Confederate groups, like the Daughters, to spread what is known as the “Lost Cause.”
The “Lost Cause” refers to the narrative that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights, not slavery. This view of the Civil War became prevalent in the late 1800s as white Southerners looked to reimagine the antebellum South as virtuous and honorable.
Historians generally agree that the “Lost Cause” narrative helped preserve white supremacy, as it became the justification for constructing monuments to Confederate soldiers and retaining the Confederate flag. Such symbols in the post-war South came to signify the continued dominance of white over black people despite the Civil War’s outcome. The inscription on the monument’s pedestal, encapsulates this view.
The statue remained undisturbed for 111 years until June 17, 2015, when the white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. His invocation of Confederate symbols and ideology provoked a debate about the public display of monuments honoring the Confederacy across the country and in Gainesville.
Following a change.org petition that gained over 1,000 signatures and multiple public protests, in September 2015 the county commission voted 3-2 to donate the statue to the Matheson History Museum on the condition the museum pay for its removal.
But after over a year of negotiations, the Matheson refused the statue, citing concerns over a lack of space and funds.
The estimated cost for removing the statue is $14,000, money the commission could come up with themselves.
“In the context of a budget that’s six figures or seven figures, I should say the idea that the County Commission would come up with $14,000 to make a move if they felt strongly about it is certainly a possibility,” said Mark Sexton, the communications coordinator for Alachua County.
In December 2016, a year after the Matheson initially refused the statue, the county was still attempting to negotiate with them. By February 2017, the county began to consider alternatives to the Matheson, including moving the statue to Veterans Memorial Park or placing a plaque in front of the inscription.
On April 26, 2017, Confederate Memorial Day, a “Rally Against Racism” was held at the statue in response to an attempt by Confederate groups to place a wreath on the statue.
The wreath was never placed, but Gainesville’s attention was back on the statue.
A month later, at a county commission meeting on May 23, the issue was raised once again. Prior to the meeting, more than 100 people on both side of the issue—and from as far away as Jacksonville—rallied by the statue, and one protester was arrested for spitting. Public comment caused the commission meeting to last four hours.
At the end of the meeting, the motion to declare the statue surplus passed 4-1.
Commissioner Robert Hutchinson voted for the motion and said he was speaking up for those who could not speak up in 1904—the height of lynchings in Alachua County, when it would have been impossible for a black person to object to the statue.
Commissioner Charles Chestnut, who seconded the motion, said he had read up on the history over the course of the last two years.
“I didn’t see anything about southern heritage,” he said. “What I saw was everything about white supremacy.”
Only Commissioner Lee Pinkoson voiced support for keeping the statue in place, noting that he considered it a memorial to the dead.
The commission voted to give the statue to the Daughters of the Confederacy, who now have 60 days to decide whether to accept the statue and then 60 days to remove it.
One way or the other, the statue will be removed from its current location.
Byerly—who said he did not see the statue as history, but as public artwork—said the statue will be replaced with a piece of art that affirms the entire community’s hopes and dreams, and speaks for everyone.
“I don’t necessarily envision some guy on a horse,” he said. •