Tampa Bay Times
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For 106 years, Memoria in Aeterna, a monument to Confederate soldiers, has stood in downtown Tampa as a reminder of the city's Southern roots and, for many, a history of slavery and oppression.
But on Wednesday, after 31/2 hours of impassioned pleas from the public and contentious debate from the dais, Hillsborough County commissioners voted 4-2 to remove the statue from its home outside the old county courthouse.
Instead, commissioners will send the Confederate monument to the private cemetery of the Brandon family, the namesake of the east Hillsborough community who at the eleventh hour volunteered to take it.
"It will not be on Hillsborough County property any longer," Commissioner Les Miller, the catalyst for removal, said after the vote. "It's the right thing to do."
The decision marks the second time in two years that this commission, a board led by Republicans in the heart of a Southern state, voted to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces. In 2015, commissioners unanimously moved to turn over a Confederate flag that hung in the county center to the Tampa Bay History Center.
With the vote, Tampa joins other Southern cities like New Orleans and Orlando that have removed Confederate statues in recent months.
Commissioners Miller, Pat Kemp, Sandy Murman and Al Higginbotham voted for removal. Commissioners Ken Hagan and Stacy White were opposed.
Commissioner Victor Crist did not attend Wednesday's meeting and asked to delay a decision. He previously told the Tampa Bay Times he supported relocation. In a text message Wednesday, Crist was displeased that his preferred site for the monument, a private cemetery in Lutz, was not presented by county staff as he requested.
Most assumed this issue settled, at least for the time being, when commissioners voted 4-3 on June 21 not to move the monument.
After the July 4 holiday, Miller — the commission's lone black member — announced he wanted another vote as sentiments began to shift.
When commissioners revisited the decision Wednesday, one of the prevailing commissioners, Murman, had changed sides.
Murman said a tough decision recently became easier. Tampa lawyer Tom Scarritt volunteered to raise the money needed to relocate the statue, likely to exceed $100,000, making a move more fiscally viable.
"I don't see how anyone can not support this," Murman said. "In the best interest of all of our citizens, we need to move forward."
Scarritt said Wednesday that he started a campaign called the "Tampa Statue Relocation Fund" on the crowd fundraising website GoFundMe. He said he hopes the idea "resolves an issue that divides us." As of Wednesday afternoon, the cause had raised $225 toward a $200,000 goal.
More than 100 residents signed up to speak and one by one, each made a case for or against removal. The overwhelming majority wanted to see the statue relocated or taken down.
"I have to be here today to explain to seven grown men and women that a courthouse is no place for a statue commemorating racism," said Michael Cardwell, one of the many speakers who said the monument needs to find a new home.
"It's a shame there was a monument in the first place," said Jason Eames.
But Paul Vaccaro told commissioners "the left is trying to remove everything and anything they disagree with.'' Another speaker, Ken Reyes, asked for a countywide referendum to let voters decide.
Murman asked her colleagues to delay a vote until next month to consider whether to hold a referendum on the monument's fate. Her motion failed.
"I was very, very happy that that idea did not get any traction," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who called for removing the statue out of the city's urban core after the June vote. Commissioners, Buckhorn said, made the "right decision for the right reasons, and I think the compromise that they worked out is appropriate."
At times, public comment was interrupted by cheers or jeers from the audience, or delayed by disputes among commissioners on how much time to give speakers.
As board chairman, White admonished outbursts from either side and steered the board toward a cordial conclusion, albeit one he opposed.
White also helped orchestrate the move to the Brandon family cemetery. At his urging, commissioners voted 4-2 to send the monument there,. Miller wanted to hand it over to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the nonprofit that erected the monument in 1911.
The Brandon family's ties to the area go back 160 years. Their descendents fought for the Confederacy and their private cemetery includes graves for Confederate veterans and an existing memorial.
In a letter to White, family representative Lee Brandon said the family cemetery was "an appropriate venue" and he guaranteed access to the site for those wishing to view it.
The monument is Tampa's oldest statue. About 5,000 people attended the dedication in 1911 when Tampa was still a small port city, according to a news account.
At its unveiling, then-State Attorney Herbert Phillips, the keynote speaker, called African-Americans an "ignorant and inferior race."
In 1952 it was moved outside what is now the former Hillsborough County Courthouse, an annex that also holds traffic court and conducts weddings. There it stands today, within view of the second-floor board room in the county center where commissioners decided its fate.
Miller, in his last term on the commission after a long political career, said as a University of South Florida student he promised himself that one day he would fight to remove the monument.
When the decision was final, he said he told his children: "It's for you."
"It's for future generations to come," he said. "I grew up in segregation. I knew what it was like to see that monument or Confederate flags."
Commissioners were under intense political and community pressure in the weeks and days leading up to the meeting. Indeed, one speaker, Andy Strickland, planted a "Make America Great Again" hat on the lectern and pointed it at the four Republicans there so "some of you can remember who is the base of your party."
Higginbotham said he received death threats that called him a traitor and warned him to "sleep well."
An east Hillsborough Republican born and raised in the south, Higginbotham said his own experience as a disabled man guided what he called "a decision that's in my heart."
"I'll never know what it's like to be treated differently because of the color of my skin," said Higginbotham, who broke his back in 1995 when a tree fell on him. "I know what it's like to be treated differently because of my disability and what it's like to have to work extra hard."
Finally, he added: "And I do plan on sleeping well tonight."