Putnam Commissioners Delay Confederate Monument Decision Despite Activists’ Pleas

Jul 15, 2020

A portion of Tuesday’s Putnam Board of County Commissioners Workshop was dedicated to speaking about the generic Confederate soldier monument that stands in front of the entrance of the courthouse.

Three Putnam County activists - Tevel Adams, DarNesha Leonard, and Gavin Thomas - proposed a plan for relocating the monument to Westview Cemetery, located just a few blocks southwest of where it stands now.

After hearing from the activists, along with others both for and against the removal of the monument from the courthouse via email or through a virtual call, the commissioners decided they wouldn’t yet make a decision.

“I would like to try to find out more about the issue,” said Board Chair Terry Turner. “There’s been a lot of offers made here today by different individuals.” 

County Commissioner Jeff Rawls attempted to get a motion rolling to have the monument decision appear as a referendum in November, but it died without support from another commissioner. 

The commissioners said they want to continue discussing the matter in a future workshop. 

“The election cycle is coming up, so if it’s the intention of the commission to get on the ballot, then we’re going to have to do it pretty quickly,” Rawls said. “Otherwise, we’ll be waiting until 2022.” 

For Adams, Leonard, and Thomas, seeing it on a referendum would be a disappointment.

“Just from speaking to the commissioners myself, they all seem very positive that if it went to a referendum that it would overwhelmingly be that the county wanted the monument to stay,” Thomas said after the workshop.

In early June, the activists held a protest outside the courthouse to shed some light on the issue. 

But based on the Tuesday's workshop, Adams said he felt like there was “no real progress.”

“They didn't open up that conversation with us, and it just feels like we keep hitting a wall,” Leonard said. 

The activists also believe that if it went to a referendum, they’re nervous that the monument could get vandalized or destroyed by outside parties, eliminating any chance of a compromise. 

Palatka Mayor Terrill Hill, who spoke for relocation of the monument from the courthouse, told the commissioners to make the “right” decision, which might not be what the majority of Putnam  County constituents want.

“Putnam County is only 15% African American,” Hill said. “But that 15% means something, because minority rights are something that our framers wanted us to consider as we began to make decisions in this country.” 

Hill said he’s brought up the topic of the monument since 2017, soon after the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Charlottesville, Virginia, which also triggered a national debate about Confederate monuments. He said overall, the County Commission has dragged its feet in discussing the matter.

This year, he believes the conversation has been intentionally slow moving because three of the five commissioners - Terry Turner, Buddy Goddard, and Bill Pickens - are all up for reelection.

“I wholeheartedly think it has something to do with election time coming up,” Hill said after the workshop. “When workshops are being conducted all over America on this issue and have been in place. Every position that you want to see has been discussed, debated throughout the last several years and the last century, and we now find ourselves in a situation where our leadership within Putnam County is saying they need more information. Well, what more information do you need?”  

Hill also said it was telling that the commissioners slated the next workshop to discuss the matter in September, a few weeks after the August 18 primary. 

When the lack of decision making was tied to the election during the workshop, Pickens fired back.

“To bring the election in here, this is just how this is timed. It's unfortunate, you know, to even consider you saying we’re shunning our duties because of the election coming up. That's not fair,” Pickens said.

Advocates against the removal of the statue brought up claims that the Civil War was not about slavery, that the monument was a memorial to veterans in general, not just Confederate soldiers, and that people aren’t really bothered by it, but instead are just looking for something to attack while the issue is being highlighted nationally. 

“Just because they haven't been talking about it in their circles, it doesn't mean that it's not something that the community has been addressing. I mean, people have been talking about this for a long time,” said DarNesha Leonard.

During their proposal, the activists also suggested renaming the county courthouse after Peter Hagen, a former white sheriff in the early 20th century who is known in the community for standing up against the Ku Klux Klan and mob violence against black people.

Other proposals included adding a walkway and historic marker to where the monument would go in the Westview Cemetery for historical context, and adding separate markers to Downtown Palatka to describe the Battle of Palatka and its Union occupation.

During the proposal, Adams said funds have already been raised to erect a monument in the cemetery to commemorate black soldiers who fought for the U.S. 

Although the activists feel talks have been stalled by the commissioners, they plan to keep applying pressure to their elected officials.

“The goal from here on out is to continue to stay optimistic and continue to hope for the better,” Adams said. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.