A long and winding discussion about race relations and history dominated a Monday afternoon Florence City Council meeting that saw a 4-3 vote to accept for the Florence Veterans Park a controversial World War I monument that distinguishes fallen soldiers from that war as colored or white.
Voting to accept the monument – with a second explanatory plaque – were council members Ed Robinson, Buddy Brand, George Jebaily and Robby Hill. Mayor Stephen Wukela, Teresa Myers Ervin and Octavia Williams-Blake voted against accepting the monument from American Legion Post 1.
4-3 vote to accept for the Florence Veterans Park a controversial World War I monument that distinguishes fallen soldiers from that war as colored or white
The post received unanimous approval last month from the city’s Parks Commission to relocate the monument to Veterans Park, but the city halted the move amid concerns about the plaque’s language.
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Before the Monday council vote, City Manager Drew Griffin told members the language for the second plaque – ostensibly to add historical context – would require further discussion and consideration.
Also before the vote, the mayor, several council members and a few citizens offered their thoughts.
City attorney Jim Peterson explained how the Heritage Act states no changes can be made to a monument on public grounds without approval from two-thirds of the state Legislature. Currently, the American Legion owns the monument, he said, and it can do as it pleases. Once the monument is moved, it falls under the auspice of the act, he said.
Barry Wingard, chairman of the Veterans Park Committee, spoke at length about how social mores have evolved from the 1950s to the present, how history has viewed African-Americans serving in uniform and how he’s seen other plaques and monuments commemorate their efforts.
“We need to remember history but not repeat it,” he said, noting that 36 names will be added at Veterans Park on their namesake day without any mention of race or ethnicity.
When he was growing up, Wingard recalled learning the word “colored” as being inoffensive.
“That’s just the way it was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “My generation of white guys sometimes gets confused.”
Wingard mentioned use of the word “colored” regarding the National Association for Advancement of Colored People as well as use of “Negro” in reference to the United Negro College Fund and how those words fit their time period.
“In 1928, ‘colored’ was a common term,” he said.
Trip Advisor ranks the veterans park as the No. 1 attraction in Florence
Trip Advisor ranks the veterans park as the No. 1 attraction in Florence, he said, and offered the view that it’s an “outdoor museum.”
“I understand the word ‘colored’ is unsuitable by today’s standards,” Wingard said. “I get it.”
A second marker or plaque would “justify what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We can’t change history, good or bad, but we can learn from it.”
We can’t change history, good or bad, but we can learn from it.
Barry Wingard, chairman of the Veterans Park Committee
Williams-Blake asked about his confusion and assured Wingard that using the word “colored” is offensive.
“So there’s no reason to be confused about it,” she said. “I’m telling you, it’s offensive.”
Wingard said he recalled seeing water fountains for colored people when he was younger.
“That’s the way it was. I’m not trying to justify it,” he said, while acknowledging the word “colored” does offend.
“I don’t remember ever seeing colored or white anything, and I have no desire to see that again,” she replied.
The monument issue “has nothing to do with the Confederate flag.
Wingard said the monument issue “has nothing to do with the Confederate flag” and doesn’t demonstrate hate.
“We are trying to honor 67 people. I can’t get in your skin. You can’t get in my head. I accept that,” he said.
Having the conversation so soon after the Confederate flag was lowered from the Statehouse grounds was very uncomfortable from her perspective as an African-American, Williams-Blake said.
“I’m sympathetic with your position,” he said, noting “we’re not trying to wave it in your face or embarrass people.”
Ervin said the word “colored” segregated soldiers that should’ve been treated equally.
“What can we do to honor these soldiers the way it should have been done back then?” she said. “From there to now, if you’re going to honor them, honor them. Right now, they are not honored.”
We’re at a place right now to not only honor history, but correct history, she said.
“We’re still honoring something that was incorrectly done,” she said. “Separate but equal is not considered honorable.”
It’s only in fairly recent times that the significant contributions made by African-American soldiers in World War I and World War II are being fully realized, she said.
“History shall never be forgotten, but it needs to be placed in a museum,” she said, as perception is really important. “It won’t be viewed in a positive manner.”
James McLaughlin, an African-American veteran and commander of VFW 3181, reminded them of the dear price paid to ensure freedom and told the council that the word “colored” might also refer to Puerto Ricans or American Indians, for instance.
“We know we came further than the word ‘colored,’” he said.
George Jebaily recalled seeing separate water fountains when he moved here from New York at 7 years old, he said, recalling how his mother had a hard time explaining the reason.
He mused about the value lost in pointing out the historical perspective.
McLaughlin said he was called words “uglier than colored,” but his mother taught him to “hold head up higher, because that’s not you.”
Charles Bethea, the commander of Post 1, told the council a September forum ended with agreement in keeping the monument as it is.
African-American is a word not even invented in 1928. History is history, not what we feel about it today.
Charles Bethea, the commander of Post 1
“African-American is a word not even invented in 1928,” he said, “History is history, not what we feel about it today.”
Bill Pickle, a political commentator, said he and his wife have traveled all over the world and have seen many things along the way that could be deemed derogatory.
“I do understand the history of prejudice and racism,” he said, while offering the view that “it’s not right to change this plaque.”
“Do you think the parents and loved ones of those on the plaque really cared if the word ‘colored’ was on there?” he asked. “I bet you they didn’t really care.”
Council chairman Ed Robinson guessed at being “the only veteran up here,” referring to fellow council members and bemoaned how he’s seen “so many fight for freedom and equality,” only to return to a neighborhood greatly diminished.
The Florence of the past, the “All-American City” designation, is no longer fitting, he said.
“I think the word ‘colored’ doesn’t necessarily mean black but also means less than,” he said. “And that’s why it’s so offensive, because you’re not on the same level as I. Black folks in every category in everything that’s decent, we’re at the bottom.”
We’re separated now, he said.
“The reason is segregation,” Robinson said. “The word colored means you’re less than. It hasn’t changed. We have been discriminated against. If given the same opportunity and chance to progress, we could be just like everybody else.”
We’re not as far back now as we were in 1928, he said, but we have to do a better job, which was why he supported putting the monument in Veterans Park and leaving it like it is.
Wukela said he was greatly moved by a recent reading of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail.”
“I’m very concerned that regardless of intent, that we may unintentionally cause those clouds of inferiority to form in young minds if we erect this plaque anew,” he said.
South Carolina took a “great step forward” after the slaying of nine African-Americans in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, he said.
“I’m very recalcitrant to do anything that takes us back,” he said, noting he would vote not to accept the plaque unchanged.
Williams-Blake said she couldn’t conceive of taking her daughter to a park where she would see colored soldiers and white soldiers separated.
“I’m thinking about what that would do to her soul,” Williams-Blake said. “A second plaque can’t explain enough to wipe away those feelings.”
Hearing words such as “colored” and “Negro” made her angry and uncomfortable.
“It pains me to know that tomorrow’s headline will say that Florence voted to put a segregated monument in our Veterans Park,” he said. “That hurts me to my core.”
Ervin said she felt “literally sick; drained to the point of feeling sick.”
“I don’t care how you try to lay it down, how beautiful you make it, we don’t need it now,” she said. “I believe it is a step back in time.”
Morning News reporter Matt Robertson contributed to this story.