Like most multi-generational, white Floridians, my family tree is deeply entwined with Florida’s racist history. A Columbia County slave schedule dated October 12th, 1850 lists my 3rd great-grandfather, Durham Hancock, as having enslaved three people: a 22-year-old woman, a two-year-old boy, and a four-month-old girl. On the other side of that same branch, my 3rd great-grandfather Elisha Howard was a corporal in Georgia’s 52nd regiment during the Civil War.
Elisha lived near the small town of Sanderson, Florida. Sanderson was named for John Pease Sanderson, a member of Congress of the Confederate States of America. Sanderson was, at the time, part of Bradford County — named for Captain Richard Bradford, a Confederate officer. It is now in Baker County, named for James McNair Baker, another Confederate senator. In all, Florida has 7 counties named in commemoration of the Civil War and the Confederacy: Baker; Bradford; Brevard, named after Theodorus Brevard, Confederate comptroller and father of Brigadier General Theodore Brevard; Hendry, after Confederate officer Francis A. Hendry; Lee, after Robert E. Lee; Pasco, after Confederate veteran Samuel Pasco; and Dixie, named in 1921, well after “They Drove Old Dixie Down” but shortly after the peak of racist Confederate monument building.
The twigs and branches stemming from these two men form a lattice that includes confederate soldiers and veterans of the Seminole Wars (there are 6 counties memorializing people associated with that, including Miami-Dade.) There are another 15 counties named for slave holders like my 3rd great-grandfather Elisha. At final count, Florida has 28 counties that in some way memorialize people or events related to the racist and genocidal history of the state and country. Some of them are common: the founding fathers (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Franklin, Hamilton) are all well represented. Others are less common, like Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion, who not-so-famously raped the women he enslaved and hunted indigenous people for fun. John C. Calhoun, who called slavery a “positive good” gets a county, too.
Debates rage about the legacy of racist monuments. Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia has become a hotbed of activity during the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Statues of Jefferson Davis, Christopher Columbus, and Williams Carter Wickham were all pulled down by protesters. A statue of Black tennis legend Arthur Ashe was vandalized with the text “WLM,” a play on the popular shortening of Black Lives Matter that’s used by white supremacists. On the nearby campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, protesters pulled down the Confederate Howitzer statue. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, protesters removed a statue of slave trader Edward Colston, dumping it into the nearby river.
But this isn’t actually anything new, even in Florida. I remember the feeling of celebration when “Old Joe” was removed from his station in Gainesville, Florida early in the morning to avoid confrontations between protesters and neo-confederates. Hollywood, Florida renamed Lee, Forrest, and Hood Streets two years ago after sustained pressure by local groups. Duval County (named for William Pope Duval, who sought to remove native groups and attract plantations using enslaved labor to the state) just unanimously passed a resolution to begin renaming schools named after confederate officers. There are countless other examples from all over the world of these kinds of changes being made.
But what, if anything, should we do about these other monuments in Florida? Could there be a push to rename cities, towns, and counties and if so, what would it look like to do that in a just manner? The scale is certainly different and the level of pressure to affect change would need to be much higher, but Florida was not terra nullius prior to colonization. In fact, counties were created and renamed seemingly on a whim or over petty squabbles between landowners. Could residents work with our various indigenous groups to restore their place names? Micanopy, a small town outside of Gainesville in Alachua County is named for the Seminole leader who defeated Miami-Dade namesake Francis Dade. What would Florida’s landscape look like if other parts of the state were similarly named? I don’t have an answer, but now is the time to start posing the question.