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Where should the Confederate memorial go? Manatee officials are leaving it up to voters

Poll shows support for Confederate monument

Representatives of Save Southern Heritage and others demand the return of the Confederate war veteran memorial removed by the Manatee County Commission.
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Representatives of Save Southern Heritage and others demand the return of the Confederate war veteran memorial removed by the Manatee County Commission.

After keeping it hidden under wraps for almost two years, the county commission on Tuesday decided that Manatee voters will be the ones who decide what to do with the controversial Confederate memorial that once sat on display in downtown Bradenton.

Erected by the Judah P. Benjamin Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in June 1924, the 95-year-old memorial features the names of prominent Confederate-era figures Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, as well as a depiction of the Confederate flag, etched on the sides.

Local southern heritage groups have been critical of the county’s handling of the monument, citing a delay in determining its future placement and a lack of transparency with the public.

By a unanimous vote, commissioners elected to create a 9-member advisory board, including four African Americans, that will select three possible locations for the monument to be placed. Those options will appear the ballot for the November 2020 general election.

“I think it should go on the ballot and let people decide,” Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said. “I think this board needs to get out of this equation.”

Commissioner Reggie Bellamy made an argument for African American representation on the advisory panel, given the “devastating” effect slavery and the Civil War have had on the community.

“We have sweat, blood and tears in this,” Bellamy said. “We have to have a say so also.”

Opponents to and supporters of Confederate memorial in downtown Bradenton face off Monday, Aug. 21, 2017.

Before their vote, Deputy County Administrator John Osborne provided commissioners with an overview of the monument’s history, as well as a handful of options to house it. The board’s options are more limited than they may realize, he noted, because of a number of factors, including land deeds and grants that paid for the land they own.

“Every one one of the sites could have handcuffs that come with it,” he explained.

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The Board of County Commissioners first voted to remove and relocate the memorial in August 2017 by a 4-3 vote. That decision came just weeks after the Charlottesville, Va., demonstration that attracted national attention and sparked a nationwide debate about the ethics of honoring the Confederacy, which lost the U.S. Civil War, and a protest and counter-protest in downtown Bradenton.

But while contractors extracted the statue from the Manatee Historic Courthouse in the middle of the night, the obelisk snapped in half due to an insecure base. County staff say repairs should cost around $44,000, and be included in the cost of relocation. The pieces have been kept in storage near Lake Manatee since the monument’s removal.

Baugh had previously hinted at possible locations for the monument, including the First White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery, Ala. Some of Osborne’s proposals included the Rye Wilderness Park, Myakka Community Park, Fort Hamer Park and Robinson Preserve.

County staff had also investigated the possibility of placing the statue at the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton but according to Commissioner Carol Whitmore, their request was officially denied in February because it would require an amendment to the state of Florida’s parks master plan, which is only done every 10 years.

A handful of members from the public also gave their opinion on the county’s removal of the statue, many of them arguing that it needs to be put back in its previous spot in the courthouse courtyard. A number of commissioners agreed with them, but felt that the entire public has the right to have the final say.

“This board promised there would be public input in this decision and that’s something I want to see take place,” said Commissioner Misty Servia. “I want to make sure we hear from everyone who wants to give their thoughts.”

No matter where the memorial ends up, Servia called for the site to include “an educational aspect” that explains how the monument became a polarizing figure.

“We need a plaque that explains why it’s so important on the Confederate side and why some view it as symbol of hate,” she said.

The County Attorney’s Office has been ordered to draft a resolution that would create an advisory board for the county. Potential members will need to apply and be confirmed by commissioners at a later date.

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