New Context For Confederate Memorials
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A week from today is the one-year anniversary of the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va. That deadly demonstration was sparked by a debate over a statue of Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee. Communities across the country have been grappling with what to do with their Confederate monuments. Some cities have let them stand. Others have torn them down. But there is another approach. Take St. Augustine, Fla.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And tonight, the city officially unveiled its plan to add new context to that memorial despite opposition from some who say it should be left as is and others who say it needs to come down altogether.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: St. Augustine city commissioners voted last month to add four bronze plaques to a Civil War marker honoring Confederate dead. Regina Phillips is on the committee that advised the city. She is the director of the Lincolnville Museum, an African-American history and cultural center in St. Augustine. The plaques haven't been installed yet on the 19th century obelisk. But we asked Phillips to describe what they'll say, and she told us there will be one covering Civil War history, another one on what monuments like these stand for.
REGINA PHILLIPS: The other issues were - and I'm flipping through papers as I'm talking to you - the changing views of the monument because since the 1870s, viewpoints have changed in terms of how Confederate soldiers are honored and what the meaning is to others, especially people of color. We also talked about the men who fought on both sides of the war because nothing had been mentioned about other soldiers who were mainly Union soldiers that occupied the city of St. Augustine or the soldiers who left St. Augustine, mainly U.S. colored troops that became a part of the Civil War also. So if, you know, our view was if it's going to be in a public space, it should have a broader view of what actually happened at that time in history.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you mind reading some of the actual language that is on these plaques?
PHILLIPS: OK. (Reading) St. Augustine men fought on both sides. St. Augustine white men formed militias which joined the Confederate Florida regiments and fought in Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina. The next paragraph says that (reading) black men in St. Augustine were among the first to join fighting units in the Civil War as early as 1862. Local black men headed to Hilton Head, S.C., to join volunteer regiments. These forces were later designated the United States Colored Troops.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So that gives us a sense of what you were trying to do - very factual, on the point. But I'm curious what the reaction has been because it seems like a solution that won't satisfy everyone. I mean, in many ways, this is still living history that is being fought over.
PHILLIPS: Absolutely, and that's what we try to address because there is this - I don't know, but it's like a broad body of people who want to say that the Civil War had absolutely nothing to do with slavery, which as a African-American female, is - to me is nonsense. So that part has probably the most controversial - and I'm going to read you the first paragraph of that. It says (reading) the public display of Confederate memorials from the 1870s through the civil rights era and beyond remain deeply personal, emotional and divisive. Some view this monument as a noble reminder of personal sacrifice, while others interpret it as a painful reminder of the reassertion of white supremacy.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask you, as a student of history, why you think we're having to do this in 2018, so long after the Civil War?
PHILLIPS: Well, I think that so many of those attitudes have become pervasive again in our society. I mean, if you look back at history, it has a strange way of repeating itself. The civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act - all of those things are being eroded by the powers that be and by our court system. And I think that there's been a lot of that here in this city since the Civil War and since the civil rights movement. And that's, I think, what we are trying to - from a historical standpoint, to just lay the facts out. The monument as it stands right now without these plaques - it shows almost, like, St. Augustine was a Confederate stronghold, when that was not the case at all.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand that you had some reservations about doing this interview, in part because you were worried about the backlash against the African-American museum that you run. That seems to signal how divisive this issue really is.
PHILLIPS: It is. I can tell you that there are some very hateful things that float around this community that I am aware of. And, you know, we've had some minor vandalism to signage at the museum. I just try to stay clear of that, stay on a positive footing and promote the history of the people of St. Augustine, black and white. And are we telling the unadulterated history of what happened during that time?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Regina Phillips is the director of the Lincolnville Museum in St. Augustine, Fla. Thank you very much.
PHILLIPS: Thank you.
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