In April 2018, the city had been embroiled in a dispute with Rev Ronald Rawls for a year. The Gainesville interloper argued that he was entitled to demolition permits for the historic 1920’s complex known as “Echo House”. The classic architecture made the buildings contributing structures to the National Register Historic Lincolnville Community.
At one time, Echo House provided indigent African Americans with nursing care. The center became part of the estate of Dr. Andrew Anderson II and was made a gift to the city. Despite a defensible reverter-clause, triggered by Rawls failure to produce the money needed to continue his “School of Excellence”, the city caved to Rawls demands. In a 3/2 split decision, the commission allowed the center to be demolished to make way for a parking lot for the AME church.
In less than six-months, Rawls was back antagonizing the city commission. Using his overworked, racist refrain, he stood before the commission during public comments and unleashed a tirade of hostile, threatening accusations against the city, its business owners, residents, and the members of the board. With vulgar language, abusive use of the term “nigger”, and threatening gestures, Rawls leveled more ultimatums. This time it was that, unless the city took down the 1879 Confederate veterans memorial in the Plaza, there would be no peace in the city. He promised to march in protest, disrupt business in local stores and restaurants, and instigate civil unrest.
At the direction of the city manager, John Regan, and chief Barry Fox, Rawls occupied the Plaza during the Nights of Lights, Light Up! Night. He bussed in protestors from Jacksonville and Gainesville and was given police protection to parade back and forth between the band and residents who were there to enjoy Christmas carols as they have for decades. Their chanting made it difficult to hear the music, their banners and posters blocked the view of the performers. Rawls was escorted by Minister James Evan Muhammad from the New Black Panther Party. He appeared in a video, arm in arm with Rawls; shouting “Black Power” and warning that Black Educators for Justice and the NBPP National Ministry of Education would deliver whatever Rawls needed to shut down “white supremacy” in St Augustine. The police took no action.
On October 27, 2017, the Commission voted unanimously to preserve, not destroy, the historic obelisk. They instructed Regan to form a blue-ribbon citizen committee to develop a way to contextualize the history of the monument given to the City by the Ladies Memorial Association of St Augustine. Regan received 40 applications and selected 7 to serve on the committee. They started work in January of 2018 and delivered their recommendation to the Commission for approval on July 9, 2018.
At the conclusion of a city commission meeting in February 2019, St Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver suffered a stroke. To ensure her safe recovery and convalescence, she resigned the remainder of her third term. In March, the commissioners appointed former mayor, Tracy Upchurch, to complete Shaver’s remaining time in office through 2020.
Just two-years later, Rawls is demanding that the “new mayor” revisit the unanimous decision of the commission when Shaver was still mayor. Upchurch is the only new face on the board. As if “the fix was in”, the City acted with warp speed, in collusion with city attorney Isabelle Lopez, Regan, and Upchurch; who announced before the meeting that he was supporting a resolution to abandon the first decision and remove the memorial. Both Nancy Sikes-Kline, who argued passionately for the preservation of the Bridge of Lions, the Water Works building in North City, and the ill-fated Echo House in Lincolnville, as well as vice-mayor Leanna Freeman, voted to preserve the memorial in 2018.
After Upchurch, Freeman, and Kline telegraphed their desire to remove the memorial, an act that many Historic City News subscribers and editorial board members are calling a violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law, a resolution was drafted and placed on the agenda for removal of the obelisk.
In the background without public scrutiny, Regan is having the obelisk laser scanned, he hires a Green Cove Springs moving company for over $160,000 to crate and move the memorial, he buys $5,000 worth of fencing, more money for lumber, all before the commission has voted on anything. The night after listening to a days-worth of citizen comments (with mediocre attention), the commissioners voted exactly how they signaled they were going to vote — delivering a 3/2 split vote to remove the 143-year-old memorial.
Then, literally within minutes, following a wink and a nod from Regan, city maintenance and house movers magically appeared in the Plaza to erect the security fence and board up the memorial without further ado. In a matter of hours, the northeast quadrant of the Plaza and the memorial itself had been secured. The only thing missing was the crime scene tape.
Before the dust settles, as word is spreading across the Internet, Jill M. Pacetti, individually and as a representative of the group of lineal descendants of the forty-six fallen soldiers listed on the Confederate Obelisk, joins the Veteran’s Council of St Johns County, Inc, and the Military Officers Association of America, Ancient City Chapter, and, through their attorney John Terhune, files a lawsuit seeking an injunction to keep the City from attempting to move the historic memorial.
As the lawsuit is advancing through the St Johns County Circuit Court, the City has been given 15-days to answer before Judge Lee Smith makes his ruling. In preparation for the next step, one of the witnesses being deposed is former mayor, Nancy Shaver. Shaver provided the following affidavit to the court and furnished Historic City News a copy:
I NANCY SHAVER MAKE OATH AND SAY THAT:
I served as the Mayor of St Augustine between the years 2014 and 2019. I resigned during my third term as the elected Mayor of St Augustine due to health reasons. Mr. Tracy Upchurch was appointed to finish my term which runs through 2020.
During my service as Mayor of St Augustine, the City Commission chose not to remove the War Memorial, based on a near year long, thoughtful, community driven process.
The War Memorial is referred to as “The Dead” which is at the center of this lawsuit and located in the Plaza in the center of a designated Historic District within the city limits of St Augustine.
In the year 2017 the City Commission, led by me, undertook a community-wide dialogue to decide the best path forward for the War Memorial. As the oldest US city with over 450 years of history, our Commission was conscious of the responsibility to maintain, preserve and explain all of Saint Augustine’s story.
We heard from the public in a meeting dedicated to the question on August 28, 2017 and asked the City Manager to provide us, the Commission, with options that would acknowledge community views and our need to preserve our country’s history. The City Manager presented findings, including expert opinion on the physical condition of the War Memorial to the Commission on October 27, 2017.
The Commission, in a unanimous vote, instructed the City Manager to proceed with the formation of a citizen committee to develop an approach for providing education and context to Plaza visitors. Forty residents applied and seven were selected to serve on the committee by the City Manager, resulting in a diverse group with varied expertise and experience.
The expert driven due diligence process began its work in January of 2018 and resulted in the recommendation delivered to the Commission for approval on July 9, 2018.
The group recommended adding plaques to surround the monument that provided meaning and context of its place in the history of the City of St Augustine. The committee’s recommendation included a proposal to add four plaques – Freedom, Sacrifice, Memory and Interpret – to the base of the monument, each of which provides a different historical perspective for those visiting the memorial.
Their recommendation was presented and approved by the Commission on July 9, 2018 and work was completed on May 8, 2019. In so doing the Commission created a process that was respectful of the historical significance of this monument and our responsibilities as guardians of the rich history of St Augustine. Our process depended heavily on both community and expert involvement. The thoughtful process of adding context took months to complete.
As a City Commission, led by me, we recognized the special responsibility we have to the citizens of Saint Augustine and her visitors, past and future to preserve and protect our unique history, as uncomfortable as that can be. This monument has been at the center of St Augustine since 1879. The monument and the people of the City deserve the respect that thoughtful due process can provide.