Just what would old Ponce de Leon think?

6 mins read


It is Saturday, early, and I’m in Port Royal.

This morning we learn that our virus — RNA that allegedly prefers cold, brisk, February temperatures— is thriving in Myrtle Beach. Our blistering, kiln-like July is here but the coronavirus remains. 

I suppose we can chalk this up to mutation or, perhaps, to the fact that South Carolina has always welcomed pathogens of any persuasion.

This morning we also learn that more statues — including Washington, Lincoln and Grant — have been toppled or spray-painted. All of which brings me round to St Augustine, Fla.

For those of you who want to see what happens when a small, coastal city decides to sell itself and its history to the highest bidder I recommend a day trip down I-95. Three hours south of Beaufort there is a town with a Spanish fort, a historic district and a waterfront esplanade not unlike our own. 

But St. Augustine also has a wax museum, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a Fountain of Youth and hundreds of trolley-riding tourists who surge through this ancient tableau drinking beer and singing “YMCA.”

In the middle of this mayhem there is a small, well-vegetated, cannon-accessorized park called Plaza de la Constitution. It comes with statutes celebrating the Spanish, the hotel-building Flaglers, and the Confederacy.

The monument to the Confederate war dead is smallish — a list of 46 Floridians who somehow got themselves to Virginia and were thereafter slaughtered at Bull Run and Fredericksburg. For many years, I would assume, this piece of stone was largely ignored — ignored until 2018 when the Town decided to add four brass tablets at the foot of the unimpressive stone obelisk. And so, we get:

The public response to the display of Confederate monuments from the 1870s through the Civil Rights era and beyond remains deeply personal, emotional and divisive. Some view the memorial as a noble reminder of personal sacrifice, others interpret it as a painful reminder of the re-assertion of white supremacy.

One of these addendums, titled INTERPRET, continues:

The obelisk honors local loved ones who gave their lives in service of the Confederate States. Yet in all these Confederate state constitutions, black people were legally regarded as human property. This memorial is a reminder of the divisive legacies of the Civil War.

In addition to the INTERPRET, there is FREEDOM that says:

President Abraham Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation decreed on January 1, 1963, all persons held as slaves within any State in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward and forever free, … the Proclamation’s first anniversary was celebrated in this Plaza where the Confederate Monument now stands.

My wife and I stood in front of all four supplements, reading them in turn and out loud. Then we sat down on a nearby bench.

“There could be more about Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era,” Susan said.

“Yes, but it does mention a ‘painful reminder of the re-assertion of white supremacy’”, I replied.

As we sat our conversation turned to our courtship in Washington D.C. in the late 60’s, when our “dates” included Thomas Jefferson — we loved hiking over to his Rotunda and reading his thoughts carved into the marble.

Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.

“And do you remember The Lincoln Memorial and his 2nd Inaugural Address?” I said.

“I do remember,” Susan responded.

Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His Aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces but let us judge not that we be not judged….

Later that night (in St. Augustine) we moved on to Ponce De Leon who came ashore in April, 1513.

We wondered, “What would old Ponce think of St. Augustine?”

Postscript: On June 23, the Orlando Sentinel reported that St Augustine’s Town Council had voted to remove the Confederate Monument (and the contextual addendums) from Plaza De La Constitution.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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