Orlando removes one of its last vestiges of the Confederacy from the public eye

Goodbye, Johnny

Orlando removes one of its last vestiges of the Confederacy from the public eye
Monivette Cordeiro

The morning sky was still dark above the waters of Lake Eola as city workers quietly began dismantling the concrete embodiment of a 152-year-old myth of nobility.

After lording over Orlando's downtown park for over a century, the "Johnny Reb" Confederate statue was hoisted down from its pedestal last Tuesday, without much fanfare, onto a flatbed truck. Perhaps anticipating the torch-wielding white nationalists who protested the takedown of a Gen. Robert E. Lee statue in Virginia, the city set up a chain-link fence perimeter around the monument, placed cop cars at each end of North Eola Drive and didn't send out a media alert until just before 6 a.m. It didn't take long for Johnny Reb to come down – no adhesive or dowels supported the 800-pound statue. Through the decades of hurricane winds and rain that have pummeled Orlando, the monument never toppled over, by the grace of gravity – though it was discolored and covered in grey lichen. Through the afternoon, workers carefully removed the monument's white panels etched with rifles and a parting message from the local Annie Coleman chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who commissioned the statue in 1911 and placed it in the park in 1917. "The cause for which he suffers was lost; the people for whom he fought were crushed," the inscription says. "The monument shall stand through the years to come as our loving tribute to the Confederate soldier and as a memorial of his heroic courage, his unparalleled devotion and his unselfish patriotism."

By the end of the day, any remnant of Johnny Reb was gone from Lake Eola, bound for a storage facility and repairs. The city plans to reassemble the statue at the Confederate veterans section of the city's Greenwood Cemetery, a process that could take six weeks.

click to enlarge Greenwood Cemetery Sexton Don Price - Monivette Cordeiro
Monivette Cordeiro
Greenwood Cemetery Sexton Don Price

Orlando's Confederate statue came down easily compared to other monuments dedicated to the "Lost Cause," a revisionist myth that paints the Confederate cause in the Civil War as a heroic, noble struggle for states' rights and a Southern way of life against overwhelming Union forces – and leaves out the part about protecting the institutions of slavery and white supremacy that powered the region's economy. (Consider this, from a speech delivered by Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, on March 21, 1861, just a few weeks before the first shots of the American Civil War: "Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.")

Across the South and the nation, the Confederacy was honored with statues, monuments, flags, street names, park names, school names and even state holidays. A 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found 1,503 of these symbols in public spaces across America, including more than 61 in Florida. For decades, black leaders and activists have tried to get them removed, but Confederate emblems started facing increased public scrutiny after the 2015 Charleston massacre in which Dylann Roof, indoctrinated online by white supremacist ideology, tried to start a "race war" by killing nine African-Americans at the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church. When photos surfaced of Roof posing with the same Confederate flag seen by some Southerners as a symbol of heritage and pride, public pressure forced South Carolina officials to remove the flag from state grounds.

Julian Chambliss, a history professor at Rollins College, says a new generation of Americans who are concerned about race and gender equity has put pressure on municipalities to reject hate if they want to attract young people and move their cities into the 21st century. Still, some have decided to keep their Confederate monuments – like Hillsborough County, where commissioners voted to keep a Confederate memorial in front of its courthouse and add a "diversity" mural behind it.

click to enlarge Protesters outside City Hall, May 15 - Monivette Cordeiro
Monivette Cordeiro
Protesters outside City Hall, May 15

After months of court battles and clashing protesters, the city of New Orleans finally removed its last Confederate monument last month. In an eloquent speech after the final statue was taken down, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the monuments were not just erected to honor Confederate statesmen, but to hide the truth of the Confederacy's intentions.

"[These statues] are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history," Landrieu said. "These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone's lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city."

In Orlando, there were no such platitudes from local officials about the removal of "Johnny Reb." The effort to remove the Confederate statue at Lake Eola Park was launched in 2015 by the progressive group Organize Now, who started circulating a petition asking for the statue to be moved to a museum. After getting some pushback from people who wanted to keep the monument at Lake Eola, city staff were directed to explore options for the future of the statue. Local officials were mum on the Confederate monument until last month, when former Orlando Sentinel journalist David Porter made a video calling on the city to remove the statue before Orlando United Day on June 12, when residents would be gathering in a ceremony at Lake Eola to honor the 49 people murdered by a hate-filled gunman at the gay nightclub Pulse.

"After last year's Pulse massacre, local officials stood up against hatred and saluted diversity," Porter said in the video. "Yet the Confederate statue remains in Lake Eola. Orlando leaders need to ask themselves, 'Do you support white supremacy over people of color?'"

Porter says he started looking into the statue after doing a news special on it for 98.5 The Wire, a Pine Hills radio station. When he called the city to get more information on the removal process, staff didn't have a clear answer. Porter decided he was going to go to a city council meeting and bring up the issue to commissioners, so he made a Facebook event inviting people to come with him. As more and more residents signed up, others started directing racist comments and even threats toward Porter.

"Somebody needed to take a stand and say something about it," he says. "I think a lot of people don't know you can go down to city council meetings and confront them and let them know what you think. Racism is still very much alive and rampant in Florida."

At the city council meeting on May 15, dozens of protesters flooded the outside of City Hall with red Confederate battle flags they carried over their shoulders; most were from outside Orlando. Some got into screaming matches with counter-protesters, arguing that the 1861 war was not about slavery at all, while others at the meeting said removing the statue would dishonor veterans and be tantamount to historical erasure. Patricia Schnurr, a member of the Annie Coleman chapter, told the crowd that after the war, women worked to put up the statues to honor their Confederate fathers, brothers and husbands who had served because nobody else was doing it. The Annie Coleman chapter held bake sales, ice cream socials and other fundraisers to pay $2,400 for the statue, which would be about $60,000 today. The monument was originally placed in 1911 across from what is now the Orange County Regional History Center on the intersection of Magnolia and Central Avenue. It moved to Lake Eola in 1917 after becoming a traffic hazard.

"I've spent my entire life preserving history and heritage for my country," she says. "The monument should be left in Lake Eola so that everybody can have a hand in looking at it. We have a right to keep it where we want it."

Besides, Schnurr added, there are streets in Orlando named after Confederate soldiers, including Parramore and Shine, as well as schools.

"Now because of political correctness and so forth, everybody is interested in knocking down the monument," she says. "Why? What are you going to do after you've knocked it down? It's not going to solve a thing."

Porter told the crowd his skin and name are a "badge of slavery" that don't allow him to forget what the Civil War was actually about or what happened to African-Americans after it. He says most people don't know that Florida led the nation per capita in lynchings from 1877 to 1950, with 331 of them. During the same time period in Orange County, 34 black people were lynched, including July Perry.

Perry was hung from a light pole in Orlando in 1920 after he and other black residents tried to vote in Ocoee. Days before the election, more than 500 Ku Klux Klan members paraded on the streets of Orange Avenue to "remind the people here that the South was not dead nor sleeping," according to archives from the Evening Reporter-Star, in a clear effort to intimidate black voters from going to the polls. When Perry and other African-Americans tried to vote, they were turned away violently. White people from Orlando and other surrounding areas descended on Ocoee and razed the black community to the ground, killing an unknown number of black people. Similar terrorizing of black communities happened in Rosewood and Groveland in the following years. Porter says it was insulting to hear some of the comments about Confederate monuments being tributes to all veterans.

"My father served in World War II and other members of my family have served in the U.S. military," he says. "One of my grandfathers was a guard at a POW camp for captured German soldiers. When he was bringing them on a train, they could go into the café and eat, but he, because of the color of his skin, had to stay outside. To say this honors them shows you don't know your history."

Mayor Buddy Dyer told those gathered at the meeting that in college, he had a Confederate flag on his wall next to a poster of Farrah Fawcett as a symbol of pride in his Southern heritage. Later on, he understood why others perceived it as a glorification of white supremacy and a vestige of slavery. The mayor didn't need the council's approval to have the statue relocated, but nonetheless, he got a consensus agreement from the majority of commissioners.

"I believe this proposal balances the inclusive morals of our community today, while carefully preserving historic artifacts from our past that can be used to further educate and serve as important lessons in today's society," Dyer said.

Moving the almost 9-ton monument will cost about $120,000, according to city spokesperson Cassandra Lafser. Before it was disassembled, a group from the University of South Florida came to take photos of the statue using 3-D imaging software, says Don Price, sexton for Greenwood Cemetery. The modeling helps staff catalog the repairs that will need to be made: cracks and separations on the Confederate statue must be fixed and the rifle, which has fallen off twice, replaced.

"He's in bad shape," Price says. "He's been hit by lightning. He needs a good clean and shine. He's been repaired a couple of times; his hands have been repaired. He was at Lake Eola a long time, so he has some city smells, mostly of urine."

When workers took apart the statue, they discovered a rusty box weighing about three pounds tucked into its base. The 100-year-old time capsule likely contains documents and photographs assembled by the women in the Annie Coleman chapter who commissioned the monument. The city has not opened the box yet because it wants to make sure it doesn't damage anything.

"If there's anything in there, it's probably dust by now," Price says. "The place it was in was not sealed, so ants were all over the box and roaches were in that space. It was not an airtight area, so I have a feeling that critters over the years may have mangled everything."

While the city may not know what's in the box yet, at least one person claims to know the time capsule's secret. Patricia Schnurr says the capsule contains a Confederate battle flag, Confederate money, a framed picture of Gen. Robert E. Lee and some type of certificate, according to the chapter's archives.

"In 1911, they had a big ceremony for the monument down in front of the courthouse on Main Street, now Magnolia Avenue," she says. "The mayor was there and all these other dignitaries, as well as Benjamin Robinson and other Confederate soldiers. Robinson's granddaughter actually pulled the sheet off the statue."

Schnurr knows by memory a lot of Orlando's Confederate history, as well as the military history of other battles in the U.S. and across the world. Yet she knows little about the Ocoee massacre or other aspects of local African-American history, saying she hasn't made a concerted effort to study it. Like the members of many other Confederate groups, Schnurr says the Civil War wasn't about slavery, adding that the "only reason why Southerners fought is because people came down here and attacked them." In fact, the secession declarations from several states cited slavery, including the declaration from Texas, which stated, "We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable."

Schnurr believes the time capsule should be given back to the Annie Coleman chapter because they're the ones who put it there in the first place.

"If they were so offended by having the monument down there, they should also be offended by what was inside the monument," she says. "Just give it back to us so you don't have to be offended anymore."

Orlando's Confederate statue will be reassembled and placed in the Confederate veterans section of the Greenwood cemetery with additional panels that give historical context and serve as an educational tool. Price says the Greenwood Cemetery is an appropriate place for the statue because so many of Orlando's historical figures are buried here in the same section, including Orlando Mayor William Jewell and Andrew Jackson Barber, who founded a cattle and agricultural dynasty across Central Florida. The reassembled statue will face north toward the Union states, instead of the way it's facing now, which is west toward Parramore, Orlando's largely African-American neighborhood. Price says the city wants to make sure the statue isn't facing any particular community.

"This is the Confederate section of the cemetery," Price says. "So historically, it belongs here. We're the keeper of the history."

Chambliss, though, says it may still be problematic to re-erect the statue because it continues the false narrative of memorialization, even if it's not in a public place anymore, and because July Perry is buried in the same cemetery, as well as some victims of the Pulse massacre.

"Statues like that aren't about memorializing the dead," he says. "They affirmed white supremacy, Jim Crow ... people get so upset because they say it's their family history, but it's not OK for you to ignore my lived experience in favor of your imaginary truth."

Price says he would love to see similar plaques in the cemetery for the Pulse victims and Perry. He talks about Perry and 1920s segregation to visitors on his midnight walking tour through the cemetery, which features other historical Orlando figures.

Chambliss says it all depends on how the statue is put into context for visitors.

"Those are symbols of anti-black violence that victimized black and white people and other ethnicities under the ideology of what it represents," he says. "People killed, maimed and tortured for it.

"There's now a visible marker of the Confederacy at the cemetery. I mean, I don't think July Perry wants to be in that cemetery. It might turn out OK, but eventually, I think someone might say something."

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