Orlando City Council

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Orlando Confederate Statue to Watch Over the Dead

Five prominent Confederate state flags depicted in a postcard for sale at the American Civil War Museum, Richmond, Va.

Orlando’s Confederate statue, known as “Johnny Reb,” will be moved to a new home watching over the dead in Greenwood Cemetery, in the Confederate section appropriately enough.

There is no timetable for moving the statue, which has been stationed at Lake Eola for about 100 years. Ironically, Johnny Reb is in poor condition and may get a cleaning and repair, thanks to the progressives who want him banished.

The Orlando City Council voted 4-3 to remove the statue, a vote symbolic of how the Civil War still divides the nation more than 150 years after it ended. Mayor Buddy Dyer, and Commissioners Patty Sheehan, Sam Ing and Regina Hill were in the majority, while Commissioners Jim Gray, Robert Stuart and Tony Ortiz were in the minority.

Dyer said the solution “balances the inclusive morals of our community today, while carefully preserving historic artifacts from our past that can be used to further educate and serve as important lessons in today’s society,” as quoted in the Orlando Sentinel.

No Record of Hearing

There is no record of the actual hearing, which was pushed by former Orlando Sentinel colleague David Porter, because it was not an agenda item and the nearly two-hour video of the City Council’s May 15 meeting ends with the last item concerning medical marijuana.

Before the Confederate hearing, Ortiz, representing heavily Hispanic District 2,  announced his “philosophy” on the subject. “We have soldiers that have served in all kinds of wars and we have to respect that,” he said.

Ortiz Is Against

It’s not surprising that Ortiz would vote against removing the Confederate statue for he often votes against social issues such as this. He was the lone City Council vote against gay marriage, for example, explaining that it was against his values. And he cannot bring himself to put up a plaque in District 2 honoring the late community activist Rico Piccard, a plaque that was approved by the state. In at least these three regards, Ortiz appears to be out of sync with his district.

The Front Lines

But Ortiz has a point about people who fight wars. Lots of enlisted or drafted soldiers have found themselves in the front lines of battle confused about why they are there. The Viet Nam War is a 20th century example. Iraq and Afghanistan are others.

It’s fair to say that many Johnny Rebs fought in the War Between the States without fully understanding why, except that it was the thing to do in the South.  (Many Civil War battlefields, such as Appomattox, are hauntingly sad.)

The South fought to defend its right to own slaves and to expand the peculiar franchise to new states joining the union. The policy benefitted the landed gentry but also the entire economy of the South founded as it was on the slave labor of blacks. The complicity of the North – its financial institutions and great universities awash in money generated by the slave trade or economy – is only now coming into focus, revealing that the entire nation is indebted to slaves.

Historical Context

The historical context is too nuanced for many defenders of all things Confederate, including the flag (of which there are several versions, by the way). First a symbol of battle, the meaning of the Confederate flag and other symbols has been lost over time, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s as the civil rights movement ratcheted up.

If it was once a symbol of history and heritage, the Confederate flag is now seen as a symbol appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups without much pushback from others.

“There are people who have confronted that flag in the hands of people who have meant to do them harm or at least want to deny them their basic civil rights,” explains John M. Coski, official historian of the American Civil War Museum. And I would add deny people their basic humanity.

Divisive Meaning

That is the divisive meaning of the flag to millions of people, particularly blacks, whose full equality means they shouldn’t have to confront these symbols daily in public spaces.

It is time for Johnny Rebel and company in Orlando and across the South to put down their rifles and flags and go home so that all of us may live and breathe freely.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Renaming Orlando’s Division Street

Downtown Orlando as seen from Division Avenue. A renaming of Division Avenue seems tantamount to an annexation. /photo credit: LIFTOrlando

Division Street in the South is the Mason-Dixon line of its communities, the historical barrier between the black and white parts of town.

It was precisely what the predominantly white population ordered, codified in municipal surveys and maps, and meant to state clearly – especially to blacks – on what side of the line they belonged.

Division streets are littered all over the south, including Florida. Orlando has a Division Avenue, while Oviedo, Mount Dora, Montverde, Clermont and Deland each have a Division Street.

Historical Marker

Renaming any division street, as the Orlando City Council is proposing, is fraught with angst, as it should be, for the street represents an important historical marker that shouldn’t be erased. Such painful history shouldn’t be paved over to make way for gleaming condos or office towers just west of downtown Orlando, considered prime real estate.

So what if developers and city officials are uncomfortable? It is asking Orlando’s black community, which has just as large a claim on the city as non blacks, to sacrifice a part of their history for the continued makeover of Downtown Orlando into Mayor Buddy Dyer‘s vision of the city.

The Past Has Not Passed

If anything, there should be a greater effort to demonstrate how racially different Orlando is today. But is it?

West Orlando, represented by Regina Hill, is predominantly black, running south of Colonial Drive, west of Rosalind Street all the way to Hiawassee Road and south to Conroy Road.  Orlando’s past has not passed at all. It is still very much with us.

Division Avenue begins at West Washington Street and flows south to Michigan Avenue, where more middle income and white households take over, raising the question, is renaming the entire Division Avenue on the table or just that portion west of Downtown Orlando?

An Annexation?

The Division Avenue in District 5 ends at Callahan Drive. It lies just west of the Amway Center and the Geico garage, making it more strategically located to Downtown Orlando than Paramore Avenue, which is further west. A name change seems tantamount to an annexation of Division Avenue into nonblack Downtown Orlando.

This is the same vicinity where Orlando is attempting to construct Creative Village, which would include the University of Central Florida downtown campus is proposed as a major draw.

Roots of Division Street

The black population originally may have been concentrated near Orlando’s South Street and Bumby Avenue in  the early 20th century, but they were quickly shuffled west of Orange Avenue, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

During segregation days, a black community thrived on Division Avenue, a history documented at the Wells Bilt Museum just a few blocks away.

Previous attempts to rename Division Avenue, in the 1990s and again in the 2000s, reached a dead end.

Renaming the street may begin to change what people know about the area. Florida, with its never-ending flow of newcomers, will little note nor long remember why there was a Division Avenue or what happened there. That’s one reason District 5 Commissioner Hill is hesitant. “I’d like to hear more,” she told the Sentinel.

Mayor Dyer, by the way, can initiate the name change without the consent of the city-required 51 percent of landowners, according to the newspaper. But consider the optics.

Change, however, is a constant. If there is to be a renaming, Hill should exact a price for rewriting southern history at the mayor’s behest.

Here are some suggestions:

• Do some horse trading. Exchange Division Avenue for a major downtown street to be renamed after a prominent African American. A Martin Luther King Drive currently exists east of John Young Parkway in District 5’s Clear Lake area – in other words, the black part of town.

• Ditch prosaic names. According to the National League of Cities, the most common street names in America are Second (10,866), Third (10,131), First (9,898), Fourth (9,190) and Park (8,926). Make sure these names don’t come in first, second, third or fourth.

• Think of the women. In Spain, streets named after fascists are being renamed after females, after whom only 27 percent of streets are named in seven world cities, according to a survey by Mapbox.

Enlighten some folks. City officials ought to understand that a Stonewall Jackson street hurts as much as a Division Avenue. Is the city willing to re-evaluate all of its street names or just the Division Avenue downtown?

Borrow a page from other places grappling with hurtful history. Germany places cobblestones where a Holocaust victim last lived, as part of the Stolperstein project. Thousands of cobblestones are spread throughout Berlin, for example.

Now there’s a project for Orlando.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor