Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer‘s announcement this week that the city’s Confederate statue will be moved from Lake Eola Park to Greenwood Cemetery represents a positive step in recognizing the changing nature of Southern culture and the diverse set of voices that deserve a say in the ongoing process of commemorating a complex and troublesome past.
The popular memory of the Civil War that dominated the South when the city’s Confederate statue was erected in 1911 was based on white supremacy and the mythology of the Lost Cause. The early 20th century represented the low point for Southern race relations. Following the removal of federal troops that marked the end of Reconstruction, Southern state governments and white supremacists worked intently and often violently to reverse any gains made by African-Americans after the end of slavery. To this end, they orchestrated the rise of “Jim Crow,” a system that created an inferior social status for African-Americans by segregating them from whites whenever possible and denying them political power.
Florida, despite its current cosmopolitan nature, was a full participant in the South’s attempt to control African-Americans through fear and intimidation. During the wave of lynching that occurred in the decades around the turn of the 20th century which helped define the Jim Crow South, white Floridians killed more African-Americans per capita than those of any other Southern state.
As African-Americans experienced brutal subjugation in the Jim Crow South, several organizations attempted to recast the cause of the Civil War. The mythology of the “Lost Cause,” as it became known removed slavery as the war’s chief instigator and instead blamed the conflict on The North, which was hellbent on destroying the Southern way of life and left Southern states with no choice but to secede. According to Lost Cause thinking, Southern soldiers did not die defending slavery but fought to protect their home and honor — a cause that deserved remembrance.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy played a major role in spreading the Lost Cause mythology through its efforts to have Confederate soldiers reburied, shape the content of school history textbooks, and oversee the erection of Confederate monuments — including the one that currently stands in Lake Eola Park.
The efforts of the UDC proved quite successful based on the large number of Confederate monuments still standing in towns and cities across the South and the ongoing popularity of Lost Cause beliefs held by many Southerners. The phrase “Heritage Not Hate,” seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers and baseball hats across the South, is a simplified distillation of the Lost Cause mythology.
Orlando in 2017 is a much different city than the one that erected The Confederate monument at Lake Eola Park in 1911. At the time, the statue represented the belief of many white Floridians in a misinterpretation of the past that helped justify the systematic mistreatment of black Floridians. Those are beliefs that do not generally represent Orlando today.
Moving the statue does not erase Southern history or its Confederate past. Nor does it dishonor those who died in its defense. Moving the statue from its current position, however, does recognize that memorials are not empty of meaning but are instead physical representations of the values and beliefs held by the community that erected them. It is time to place a new memorial in Lake Eola Park that embodies Orlando’s current commitment to diversity and toleration.
Dr. Christopher A. Huff is an assistant professor of history at Beacon College, the first higher education institution to award bachelor’s degrees primarily to students with learning disabilities, ADHD and other learning differences, where he specializes in 20th American political and social history, focusing primarily on the protest movements of the late 1960s, the civil rights movement, and southern history.