Floridians mark anniversary of joining the Confederacy
January 10, 2011
By Kate Howard
It was 150 years ago today that Florida declared itself sovereign from the United States.
Some Southern states have marked the anniversaries of secession with celebrations; in South Carolina, a secession gala was met with protests and controversy.
In Florida, a reenactment was quietly held by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Tallahassee on Saturday, where about 40 volunteers dressed in period attire performed a condensed version of the convention. It was at that convention where a 62-7 vote led to secession in 1861, making Florida the third state to leave and later join the Confederate States of America.
The legacy of that action today is complex. Some see the anniversary as a reminder of the bravery of ancestors who fought for what they believed in, and others a painful reminder of a shameful past. But most people in Florida today agree on one thing: A divisive and drastic act such as secession is something that probably could not be repeated.
"It's vitally important for us to talk about the Civil War, and understand our history," said Aaron Sheehan-Dean, a history professor at the University of North Florida. "But frankly, it was the breakdown in democracy that produced secession."
The bloody, tragic war that followed should serve as a reminder to anyone who believes secession is the solution to political disagreements, he said.
"The lesson of the Civil War is, you wait until the next election," he said. "You participate in the system, and respect the outcome."
Telling the story from both sides
The Sons of Confederate Veterans staged a reenactment in the Old Capitol chambers, an organizer said, in hopes they could present both sides of the story.
"Most wars are started over economic conditions, one side trying to oppress the other side," Jamey Creel said.
He hoped the reenactment would serve as living history to show people that the discussion was not just about slavery. It was also about state rights, unfair tariffs and overall economic issues.
He said there had been very little backlash -or even very little attention - to the event.
Andrew Skerritt, a journalism professor at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, planned to send his students to watch the reenactment. Skerritt said he worries about the revival of the argument over the causes of the Civil War, and whether we could see history repeat itself in the sentiments of the Confederacy.
"The South is such an important part of this country, and the debate needs to be informed," Skerritt said. "We need to use this as an opportunity to look ahead, and do better."
The first stop on a tour of the Museum of Southern History in Avondale is a display dedicated to the secession conventions across the South, with buttons and reproductions of the documents signed there.
Secession was hotly debated
At that display case, volunteers ask visitors: "Why do you think the South left?"
They explain that secession didn't spread like a fever - it was contested to the wire in Florida and plenty of other states. They speak about the impact of tariffs, states' rights and slavery, and the bravery of ancestors who fought for what they believed in.
And among themselves, the men at the museum discuss the way Floridians today don't care about much unless it's happening directly to them.
"Secession boils down to the Constitution, and the rights of states to live as they want to live," said Van Seagraves, curator of the museum and an Army veteran. "And it'll never happen again. People will rant and rave, but when the rubber hits the road, they'd never do it."
The only vocal proponent for modern-day secession has been the Florida League of South, a pro-secession group whose national affiliate has been categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The chairman of that group declined an interview, but sent a statement on the occasion.
"Now, 150 years later, it may be time for the people of Florida to reflect within as to whether they should shed their shackles and reclaim their independence," the statement read. "If Florida is not free to leave, she isn't free."
Embrace past; don't hold on
For Fred Singletary, honoring his ancestors is no less important than protecting his children or saluting the American flag.
It's something he devotes much of his free time to, as an amateur historian and an activist who's worked to preserve the land around key battlegrounds in Northeast Florida.
Like many adherents to the history of the Confederacy, he refers to the Civil War as The War Between the States. Though he wouldn't advocate for secession ever again - "I am an American first," he said - he believes there was more freedom for Floridians on that day of secession 150 years ago than there is now.
"There is a more powerful federal government, and they're taking states' rights away," he said.
Richard Danford of the Jacksonville Urban League also wants to honor his ancestors, who were working the fields as slaves instead of fighting in battles.
"You can't forget the past, and you can't wallow in it," said Danford.
More important, he said, is to focus our energy on improving the quality of life for people in today's communities. He encourages young people to do whatever they can to become productive citizens, and move past the scars of past and current generations.
"I don't have a problem with people embracing their past," Danford said. "I hope they don't have a problem with us embracing our past."