St. Augustine is a curious analogue for Santa Fe, being situated in Northern Florida and associated with the kinds of visceral, horrifying images that marked the Civil Rights Era.
But the city of about 15,000 people—roughly 10% of Santa Fe's population—demonstrated how to avoid the massive tumult the City Different finds itself in now over monuments to the past that leave non-white communities with modern day reminders of systemic racism.
St. Augustine's memorial, obelisk-shaped like Santa Fe's, stood for hundreds of years. Recently, as in Santa Fe, tensions over its existence and symbolism boiled over. But in very different ways.
The marker was dedicated to Confederate soldiers, creating considerable pain among the Black and activist community for decades. To them, it glorified people who defended slavery and killed for its continuation.
Monument opponents took a sustained, systematic approach to protest that included open communication with city officials and law enforcement. Over three years of consistent protests, no violent arrests or destruction of property occurred in the Florida city, founded in 1565 by the Spanish, making it the oldest city in the country. (Santa Fe is considered the oldest capital city.)
In August 2017, prominent Florida activist Reverend Ron Rawls began inviting people to City Commission meetings, trying to get someone to listen to the Black community's pleas to remove the memorial from the central plaza, a major tourist attraction.
Their attempts at dialogue failed.
"What we said we would do is we would begin to have protests that would affect the economy, and the economy in St. Augustine is mainly tourism," Rawls tells SFR.
Protests proliferated in and around the plaza. The point: to make the most popular spot in northeastern Florida "unpleasant," according to Rawls, especially during the Fourth of July and other famous holiday events. And unpleasantness caused by peaceful civil unrest finally worked.
In June 2020, after nearly three years, a split City Commission, led by a new mayor, voted to move the object.
Two months later, the city paid $344,824 to a private contractor, which gently took the Confederate Memorial apart and shipped it on a barge to private land not far from the plaza.
"They do their little Klan rallies and whatever they do out there in front of the monument," Rawls says. "I think it's good for everybody now."
A quick response once the city commission held a vote to move the memorial, as well as a lack of arrests or destruction of property, highlights several marked differences between the two oldest cities. Here, the obelisk was torn down by protesters—but only after more than seven months passed after Mayor Alan Webber made a hollow vow to remove it and years after former Mayor Javier Gonzales told constituents the city would take a comprehensive look at the monuments and memorials in Santa Fe, and never did. Seven people and counting have been arrested for alleged roles in the destruction of the marker.
The city of St. Augustine planted grass where its memorial once stood. Now people lay on blankets on that spot, relaxing in the sun and ocean breeze.
Rawls says three years of protesting and holding up a mirror to city leaders about what the monument signified to Black people finally led to real change.
"You have people that did horrendous things and their descendants want to rewrite the narrative and make it appear that these people are heroes and these are people that are to be honored," Rawls says. "I think the mayor of New Orleans once said that 'They were definitely soldiers, but they were not heroes'…You don't honor those people with a monument on public property…when you look at the truth of it, those people don't deserve to be honored."