Letter: Not time to change the memorial

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MELINDA RAKONCAY

Letter: Not time to change the memorial

Melinda Rakoncay
St Augustine, FL

Dear Historic City News editor;

I was one of the few people that regularly attended most of the Confederate Monument Committee meetings and can attest that the committee did not have an easy job.

While a noble attempt, these four plaques do not accomplish the original assignment. Even the wordsmithing is awkward in places, simply because it was written by a committee with many different writing styles and viewpoints. The result still contains text that had disagreements among members and the public.

The most blaring is the use of the term “white supremacy” on the “Interpret” plaque. This was objected to by a majority of the public that attended the meetings, and there were some committee members that felt it could be inflammatory. Yet Michael Butler, whose specialty is teaching Jim Crow Era history, was insistent on it remaining. Not even 1% of this country would consider themselves white supremacists, and it certainly is not something that describes the residents of St Augustine. On that same plaque it says that memorials convey “what a community feels and honors and reflect the values of its people.” The implication is that St Augustine honors “white supremacy,” which is an affront to those of us that live here, and to the memory of families whose relatives are on the war memorial.

John Regan pointed out in his presentation this monument is NOT a Jim Crow Era monument and has nothing to do with glorifying the Confederacy or its cause. This is a simple war memorial which was built only to honor the war dead. For many of these men, who were never returned to St Augustine for burial, the memorial acted as a tombstone, since most died far from home and were buried in unmarked graves.

The point of the adding context to the monument was to explain that it is a simple war memorial and perhaps add the history of how it was built. The Plaza de la Constitution is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and as such, this memorial is protected, as is the other war memorial that sits on the plaza. The City Commission voted to keep it with a contextualization plaque because St Augustine preserves its history.

While it might have been well-intentioned to try and explain the complicated and unique role of St Augustine during the Civil War, given the limited amount of space to do so and the conflicting viewpoints of what was important, these plaques end up doing little to educate the public.

Biases are still woven unintentionally into the wording, and no one will ever be happy with the final content. Example…one of the interesting facts is that St Augustine had both white and black men, who fought on both the North and the South. On the “Sacrifice” plaque only one brief paragraph is given to the actual men on the memorial, but two paragraphs are given to Union black troops and their accomplishments. Yet no one wanted to touch the fact that there are blacks buried with their white fellow soldiers under CSA markers in San Lorenzo Cemetery.

The committee rationalized that there would be further explanations and history given through Mobile Tours, QR Codes, GPS, and AR, but no mention of who would be responsible for writing this additional history, how to control further biases in the additional material, and who would maintain and fund these additional sites.

While the committee was supposed to seek and incorporate public input, there was little way for the public to have input without attending the meetings. There were only a handful that attended on a regular basis, and they were allowed input only at the end of the meeting after the discussion was over.

Because of dismissal time coming promptly at 5:00 pm, it meant that public input was not discussed and little of it was incorporated. Early on Paul Williams asked the committee if there was anything he could do on behalf of the City to help get drafts out to the public for feedback, and the reply was “no”.

There were no email listings of Committee members for people to send in suggestions. Darlene gave me an email address for the committee, but it was not listed on the City’s website. I sent two letters to that email address and got denials from some committee members that they received my emails, much less considered their input. I only say this to let you know that these plaques do not really reflect any input from the public.

In truth, the war memorial speaks quietly for itself. It’s a simple tribute to local men who died in battle, no different than the other war memorial on the Plaza. While there may also be disagreements over the Vietnam War, we don’t question the lives or service of those that died in it. This war memorial is no different and should be respected as such.

However, I understand the political need for the City to do something regarding this memorial. The example from Santa Fe, NM that John Regan showed in his presentation was a small plaque that simply explained that times and language were different when it was erected. Since this memorial has
no offending symbols or language on it, a simple explanation should be that the City chose to keep it because it is a war memorial and is very much part of our Plaza history.

Perhaps a solution is something simple, such as:

“The City of St Augustine has always considered the preservation of its history for future generations to be of upmost importance. This war memorial was built in 1879 with private funds raised by the The Ladies Memorial Association of St Augustine to commemorate local men who died in service to the Confederate States of America.

Most of their bodies were never returned home but were buried in unmarked graves far from home. Its marble plaques were once attached to an earlier 1872 Confederate memorial located on south St George Street. The plaques list the names of forty-six men, many of whom were of Menorcan or Spanish descent, a reflection of St Augustine’s diverse ethnic heritage.

The City of St Augustine respects the rights and freedom of all people, regardless of their backgrounds.”

Again, I respect the effort made by the committee. However, I feel that they tried to explain too much with too few words, and in the process have a product that changes the intent of this obelisk, which is simply to honor the dead. I don’t think any of us would want someone adding “context” to the tombstone of any of our family members, regardless of what they have done or not done in life. Let the dead rest in peace.

This memorial has quietly been a part of the Plaza’s history for almost 140 years. Now is not the time to change the memorial or its history.

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