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Key West Stayed In Union Hands During The Civil War. So Why Does It Have A Confederate Monument?

A historic postcard shows the pavilion in a Key West park dedicated in 1924 to soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy.
Monroe County Public Library
This historic postcard shows the pavilion in Bayview Park in Key West. The dates and lettering across the top are not visible now, if they ever were.

The city of Key West is scheduled to consider renaming and rededicating a pavilion in a city park that was built to honor the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy — despite the fact that Key West stayed in Union hands throughout the Civil War.

It was donated to the city by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. That organization was responsible for many of the monuments and statues honoring Confederate leaders that are now being removed from public spaces.

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WLRN's Florida Keys reporter Nancy Klingener spoke with Micki McElya, a historian at the University of Connecticut and the author of "The Politics of Mourning: Death And Honor In Arlington National Cemetery" and "Clinging To Mammy: The Faithful Slave In Twentieth Century America" to dig into some of the history behind monuments to the Confederacy.

MCELYA: The United Daughters of the Confederacy was a women's organization founded in 1894. In the early 20th century, it was very much about lifting your status. You were connecting yourself to this vision, which was totally specious, of the plantation past, of faithful slavery, of essentially "Gone with the Wind" and putting yourself in Scarlett's role or, even better, the role of her mother.

So monument-building was one of their earliest causes and they understand their womanhood, their gender role to feed into that. They're the caretakers of history, they're the caretakers of the past. They have a very powerful impact on Southern history and then, by association, on American histories of the past, particularly on the depiction of and understanding of slavery. And in that, their "love" for good, faithful slaves is one of the most violent aspects of the culture, one of the most vicious, overt, warping arguments about the past. It just continues to reiterate, continues to echo. It's not surprising that this summer also saw, finally, the end of the Aunt Jemima trademark. Which was a faithful slave on your grocery store shelf, making pancakes.

WLRN: Why do you think they would have wanted to do that in a place like Key West that was in Union hands throughout the Civil War?

Oh, that's even more reason to do it. It's a perfect example of the re-remembering and reconstructing of the past. The United Daughters of the Confederacy's number one mission in pretty much all aspects was the reconstruction of historical truth to be a story that would support their versions of the past and their version of themselves. This is both personal and a wider historical mission.

This is very much a specious account and beyond that, a toxic, violent, white supremacist account of the American past. Designed to shape the present and the future. Designed to push that version of the story forward. Which is why addressing these monuments is so important. Even if people forget over time, they are living things. They do have enormous power. And I think we're seeing a reckoning — a necessary reckoning — with that power now.

The plaque at the foot of one of the pavilion's columns identifies it as being dedicated to the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy.
Nancy Klingener
Many Key West residents have never noticed the plaque at the foot of one of the pavilion's columns, dedicating it to the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy.

A lot of people in town did not realize this was a Confederate monument. Is that unusual?

No, I don't think so. Clearly in the '20s and I would imagine for at least a couple of generations later the living memory of who built that monument would have been a part of the community knowledge base. But, yeah — memorial terrains shift in meanings or just become more limited in their meanings over time as the communities around them change.

Until someone looks at it and says — wait a minute. This object, this public work, this public art in our community actually stands for something. That doesn't mesh with the philosophy, or we hope doesn't mesh with the philosophies of our community. What are we going to do about it, right, and in that moment reminding people of where its history is from.

Key West commissioners will consider rededicating the pavilion during Wednesday's commission meeting, which starts at 5 p.m. Head here to watch the meeting.