After a lengthy discussion at the Feb. 28 City Council meeting about a bill that would grant historic landmark designation to Hemming Park, two committees voted last week to recommend the legislation be withdrawn when council meets today.
“It’s a good move,” said council member Reggie Brown, who spoke against the bill during the public hearing.
“It shows the city is sensitive and willing to look into the situation,” he said Monday.
At the March 6 meeting of the Neighborhood, Community Investment & Services Committee, council President Lori Boyer urged the committee to support withdrawing the bill.
The legislation (2016-559) was introduced at the request of the Historic Preservation Commission, which supports historic designation of the park.
It was named for Charles Hemming in 1899, the year after he donated the monument topped by a Confederate infantryman as a memorial to soldiers and sailors from Florida who served during the Civil War.
Boyer pointed out the bill is unique in that it wasn’t introduced by a council member or the mayor’s office so, unlike other proposed ordinances, it doesn’t have an advocate.
She also said the discussion of the designation started a debate about whether Jacksonville should continue to have a monument to the Confederacy prominently displayed in the public park in front of City Hall.
Boyer also was concerned if the park was designated historic, it might hinder future plans for improvement.
“This one has become a can of worms,” Boyer said to the committee.
Brown said Monday the statue is the issue. While he can understand the historic nature of the granite monument with a bronze Confederate soldier — depicted facing south and standing at ease with his hand resting on his musket — Brown is concerned the image may be offensive to some people as it could be a reminder of slavery and oppression.
“I agree with the historians, but if it was a statue of Adolf Hitler, you know the Jewish community would be against it,” he said.
Brown would support moving the statue out of the park, possibly to Confederate Park in Springfield.
It’s the site of a monument to Women of the Confederacy that was dedicated in 1915 and a historical marker placed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to commemorate the May 1914 national reunion of Confederate veterans that took place in Jacksonville.
“I’m not saying we should destroy or erase history,” Brown said. “I’m saying there’s a place for it (the statue), but it’s not Hemming Park.”
Emily Lisska, executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society, said Monday she’s not confident the society’s board of directors would support moving the statue.
She said the cost of moving it could be an issue, along with possible damage that might be caused by relocating a 60-foot-tall granite column and base that’s been in place for nearly 120 years.
“The board is on the record that they want to keep the statue in the park,” Lisska said, but she realizes that many people may be uncomfortable with — or even offended by — the statue.
“There are sensibilities we need to pay attention to, but the statue is an opportunity for people to know, understand and explore Jacksonville’s history,” she said.
While lobbying for the withdrawal, Boyer said taking the proposal off the agenda is “the more thoughtful way to approach this.” She’d like to see a bill introduced that would address the interests of historic preservation on one side and on the other side, those in the community who see the statue as memorializing slavery in the Confederate South.
She said the city needs to “make sure there’s nothing done that could impact the history of the park” and “there’s an opportunity for Hemming Park to be our town square and tell Jacksonville’s story.”
The Land Use and Zoning Committee also supported withdrawing the legislation.
Council meets at 5 p.m. today at City Hall and is expected to address a second Hemming Park-related issue.
An ordinance will be introduced to extend the city’s contract for Friends of Hemming Park to manage the park April 1-Sept. 30.
It would provide $40,000 a month for six months to the Friends to cover operational costs and up to $175,000 for capital improvements that could include reconfiguring the 2-acre space.