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Controversy over downtown Jacksonville park brewing

Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy
Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy
by J. Haviland

History has a long reach. It is also the victim of revision, complacency and denial. This is particularly true when that history is controversial. Such is the case with Jacksonville's Confederate Park. First called Dignan Park, for a chairman of the Board of Public Works, it opened in 1907. The United Confederate Veterans chose Jacksonville as the site for their annual reunion in the spring of 1914, which was a huge social and commercial success. Five months after the gathering of an estimated 8,000 former Confederate soldiers, the City renamed the park on October 15, 1914.

The events leading to the park’s renaming actually began during a Florida Reunion of the United Confederate Veterans (U.C.V.) in 1900, when its members discussed the possibility of creating a memorial to the women of the Confederacy. The discussions continued for several years, until the Florida Division of the U.C.V. resolved in 1909 to build the memorial. Its members raised $12,000 toward the cost of a monument, with the remaining $13,000 eventually appropriated by the Florida Legislature. The U.C.V. chose Dignan Park as the home for the memorial. The building permit was issued in July 1912 and construction started on the 47-foot high rotunda soon thereafter. The actual monument honoring the women of the Confederacy was erected the next year and dedicated on October 26, 1915.

The name change process was short and swift. During the September 2nd city council meeting of 1914, Councilman Hitchcolk introduced Bill # M-157 "an ordinance changing the name of Dignan Park to Confederate Park". Introduced at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the bill was sent for public hearing. When it was taken back up by the council on October 15th, a petition was attached, as well as a letter from the Secretary of the Jacksonville Chapter of the UDC, Nellie Jones Bennett, dated September 22, 1914:

"In consideration of the fact that Dignan Park contains the monument to the Women of the Confederacy, the members of the Jacksonville Chapter U.D.C. endorse the proposed change in name to Confederate Park." The bill passed on its final reading with a vote of 10-4. Mayor Van C. Swearingen signed it two days later.

Fast forward nearly a century. The faded rose that is Confederate Park today is bounded by a heavily polluted stream and a dog park. The Springfield Preservation and Revitalization Council is advocating the addition of a produce market on the grounds as part of the city's stalled master greenway plan (Project for Public Spaces) being designed by HDR, Inc. All of this smacks of disrespect to the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others interested in maintaining the southern history and heritage of Northeast Florida. Commander Calvin Hart of the SCV Kirby-Smith Camp #1209 has proposed an alternative use for the same space SPAR wants to co-opt. He is offering to move the Museum of Southern History to the park instead, at no cost to the city. Currently operating at 4304 Herschel Street, the museum has 3500 square feet of period displays and a historical research library with over 2500 volumes.

The SCV is the scion of the original UCV, which was active from 1889 to the mid 1940s. Along with the still-extant UDC, the organization still embodies the desire of the original founders " gather authentic data for an impartial history of the War between the States ; to preserve the relics or memories of the same; to cherish the ties of friendship that exist among the men who have shared common dangers, common suffering and privations ..."

Some will no doubt feel that the preservation of this particular era is at best, irrelevant or at worst, offensive. According to SPAR's website, the organization's purpose " to provide leadership to the residents of Historic Springfield to revitalize, preserve, and restore the community..." They also claim that the "...Hogan’s Creek Greenway beautification project is the result of SPAR’s direct involvement. SPAR held ongoing meetings with federal, state, and civic authorities to spearhead the
revitalization of the historic Hogans Creek, which runs through Springfield..." SPAR and the Historic Springfield Community Council (HSCC) have also operated a history museum at 1321 North Main Street since 1994.

It would seem that these two organizations have more in common than at odds. History offers hope. Sergeant-Major Cunningham, CSA at the very first UCV reunion in 1890 mused, "maybe the time will come when the remnant of the soldiers, North and South, will confer together for the good of the country."

Parks in peril - Confederate Park


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