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Olustee, the Monument That Keeps on Giving, Now in the Hands of the Columbia County 5

Columbia County Observer photos

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Thursday's April 1 meeting of the Columbia County 5 put the issue of Lake City's downtown Olustee Park and its namesake monument square in the County Commission's lap. They and thirteen folks from in and out of town shared their views on who should keep the Park and control the fate of the Olustee monument.

Background: recent

On August 21, 2020, City Manager Joe Helfenberger sent a letter to Columbia County asking the County to issue a quitclaim deed to Lake City.

Mr. Helfenberger continued, “The City is investigating the relocation of the Olustee monument from the park and would like to clear up the park ownership as soon as possible.”

On September 3, 2020, the quitclaim issue came before the County 5. There is nothing in the County minutes giving any idea of the discussion of The 5.

According to the minutes, after the public weighed in, Commissioner Tim Murphy made the motion "to deny the City's request for a quitclaim deed to the Park. The motion carried unanimously.

On March 15, 2021, as evening’s City Council meeting was drawing to a close, City Manager Helfenberger announced he had received an opinion about the ownership of the Park from local law firm Douglas & Douglas. The Park belonged to Columbia County.

The County 5: April 1, 2021

The County 5 met for its regularly scheduled meeting on April 1. County Attorney Joel Foreman introduced the item to the Board.

Mr. Foreman said, "You will recall on September 3, 2020, the Board was requested by Mr. Helfenberger [City Manager-Lake City] for a quitclaim deed to what is known as Olustee Park. There was a lot of discussion that night. Ultimately, the Board said absent proof that the County actually owned the Park, there was little interest in going ahead with a deed of any kind."

See: One Civil War Battle, One Olustee Monument – Two Views – Back to Square One for Lake City

Mr. Foreman continued, "On March 12 [2021], the City received a title opinion which indicated there were no title transfers from the County to the City in the title history. The title of the Park still rests with the County."

Mr. Foreman said he brought this back to the County 5 to see if it was still of the "same mindset it was in September, if you want to deed the park to the city, or if you want to take any other action."

Mr. Foreman said the City believed they owned the Park. He said the County needs to determine if it wants to maintain the Park and what it wants to do "going forward.

Mr. Foreman said that putting up the Christmas lights would now become the County's responsibility as the City had done.

Robby Hollingsworth
Com. Robby Hollingsworth

Commissioner Hollingsworth asked how much the City spent maintaining the Park over the years. Mr. Foreman said he had "no idea" and then added, "It would be "millions with an 'S.'"

Commissioner Murphy wanted the history rehashed, "Who made this grand idea that we don't own it [the Park]?"

Mr. Foreman explained there was a letter in the Board's packet of information explaining the City had asked for a deed.

Mr. Foreman said, "Back on September 3 [2020], the Board said if there is ever proof that we do own it, 'bring it back,' and that's what I am doing."

The Public Weighs In

Dicky Ferry
Dicky Ferry

Dicky Ferry:  "My name is Dicky Ferry. I am from Baker County. I live in Macclenny. I resided there for 70 years. Lake City has always been like a second home to me. If you deed this back to the City, have you considered the repercussions? The one repercussion that I see is that the monument will be taken down. I have heard rumblings that you are in danger of losing the reenactment."

Mr. Ferry said that if the monument is moved, it will bring "unfavorable publicity to the County. Moving the monument is divisive. It is dividing this country."

Mr. Ferry suggested putting up another monument to recognize the black soldiers that fought at Olustee. "They were veterans like those on that monument."

Paul Norris
Paul Norris

Paul Norris:  “My name is Paul Norris. I'm also from Baker County. Although I do not live here, I spend a lot of time in Lake City - I spend a lot of money and energy here. I love this little City. My interest in keeping and retaining the deed with the County is specifically to protect that monument so it won't be moved. I am the commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Macclenny. I am also a reenactor. I'm afraid that if we lose this monument, that's a steppingstone to losing the festival [Olustee Festival] and losing the battle itself. With the cancel culture, the way it's coming after all of our history, and especially our Civil War history, I believe that if we are not careful, we're going to lose all of that.”

Mary Barlow
Mary Barlow

Mary Barlow:  “Good evening. My name is Mary Barlow, and I am the organizer for Supporters of Southern History locally."

Ms. Barlow explained that at a City meeting, which was virtual, many people wanted the monument removed. She said the City's historian did not come up with an option to remove the monument.

Ms. Barlow said that the City Council "didn’t seem to hear any of us speak, or just the few that spoke against it."

She continued, "We would like to ask that instead of doing what the City has done for several years - ignored the citizens - why not put it up to the County residents. Put it up to vote. Let us tell you what we want done with this monument."

Newsome III
Newsome III

"My name is [unintelligible] Newsom III. My father's family is from this area. I'm a veteran, as was my father and my great-grandfather, and his five sons. I've spoken to city manager Joe Helfenberger many times."

Mr. Newsome read from George Orwell's 1984, a passage that explained how history is being "destroyed." “Please do not let this be Columbia County. Olustee Park has many monuments in it from all the wars. Today, the Confederate monument is targeted by the cancel culture, but tomorrow it could be World War I, World War II, or the Vietnam monument. Columbia County is 79% white, as are the vast majority of your constituents. If you give the Park to the City, the monument will be removed and possibly destroyed. I don't think those who vote for you and see you daily will appreciate destroying a veteran's monument. I'm asking all of you to please stand tall with courage like your ancestors did. Keep the Park and appreciate everyone's history. Show everyone that the cancel culture does not control Columbia County, Florida.”

Leon Duke
Leon Duke

Leon Duke: "Commissioners, thank you. My name is Leon Duke, master Sgt., United States Air Force retired. I'm a combat disabled veteran. In 1955 United States Congress issued an order that all Confederate veterans were considered US veterans. If the County issues a quitclaim deed to the City, it is almost a foregone conclusion that they have already made up their mind and prejudiced themselves to remove the monument. This monument being in honor of the soldiers, black and white, that died defending Lake City and Columbia County. They [Lake City] would be a disgrace to all veterans."

Mr. Duke continued, "If the veterans are considered US veterans, then the monument must be considered a US monument to US veterans.”

“The County cannot just wash their hands by throwing it to the City, knowing full well that the City's already determined to remove the monument for their own political purposes. Thank you, gentlemen."

Danny Roberts said, “The voters of this County own the Park. It's your Park. You can do with it what you want to. There's going to be a change. It should be up to the voters of this County to decide on this because it was given to the voters and the people of this County. Thank you.”

Leo Boyer
Lee Boyer

Lee Boyer:  "My name is Lee Boyer, Williston, Florida. I believe that the County should continue to own this Park. I say that for history. In my opinion, the three greatest men in my life are Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Jesus Christ of Nazareth. What the people of this country went through should not be demeaned. There were white slaveholders. There were black slaveholders, not a lot, but at least 3000 that owned 22,000 slaves.”

Mr. Boyer said he believed there should be additional monuments.

Mathew Arnold
Mathew Arnold

Mathew Arnold:  "My name is Matthew Arnold. I'm originally from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I've been a Florida resident for 40 years, 30 years in Columbia County."

Mr. Arnold said he supported the other speakers 100% and believed the County should maintain control of the property.

He said, "If the County is not sure what it wants to do with the property, they should leave it up to the voters of this County. We all own this property, every resident of Columbia County, and we all have a right to determine its fate. I believe we should maintain our history -- all our history. The first thing the Nazis, the fascists, and the Communists did was erase history. That's where they started. Burn the history books -- erase the history. Is that what this nation is coming to?"

Luca Harvey
Luca Harvey

“If this property belongs to the County, the County and the residents of the County have a right in what happens with it. Thank you very much.”

Luca Harvey:  “This statue is not about white and black. It's about all of our history. Taking it down is going to cause an uprising. You are not going to erase our history, and nothing happen. I'm damn well tired of hearing racism, and I'm tired of seeing the statues tore down. That's my history and your history.”

Bobby Brack encouraged The 5, "If anything is going to be done with that park, do it democratically."

Wayne Alford
Wayne Alford

Wayne Alford:  “I drove up from Palatka to see you gentlemen today. We recently went through this. It's been more divisive in our County than anything anybody can remember. My third great-grandfather fought in Olustee. What you guys are doing has serious consequences. We are tired of revisionist history and reading articles about the myth of the lost cause. We know our history.”

The County 5 Weighs In

With the last comment Chairman Rocky Ford opened the matter up for discussion by the Board.

County Attorney Joel Foreman
County Attorney Joel Foreman. His recommendation was to take action.

County Attorney Foreman requested a motion either way. "I would like the Board to take action so we can dispose of the request either way."

Commissioner Witt asked attorney Foreman if the City questioned the ownership of the Park because of the monument.

Mr. Foreman answered, “I think in the process of doing their due diligence about their ability to do anything with the monument...this issue came up.’Do we actually own the dirt?' I'm sure they were as surprised as we were to find that they might not."

Commissioner Toby Witt
Com. Toby Witt. He thought the County should handle the Olustee Park issue.

Mr. Foreman continued, “The Board at the time said, we are not satisfied with that lack of clarity. We want to know for sure if we own it, and that's when we said we are not going to give you a quitclaim right now.”

Mr. Witt asked, “Have you seen any communication from the City that they still want a quitclaim?”

Mr. Foreman answered, "No sir, I'm here on consideration of the last request. The way the Board left it was, 'If it turns out that we own it, then we'll reconsider whether or not we want to quitclaim it."

Chairman Ford asked if the County could stipulate that the monument could not be destroyed on the quitclaim deed.

Mr. Foreman answered, "Yes, sir."

Commissioner Tim Murphy
Com. Tim Murphy. He is in favor of leaving the monument where it is.

Mr. Ford said, “My concern at this point, 'Does the City want the park?'"

Mr. Foreman said, “The reason that I brought this forward right away -- If you decide you want to deed it, the City has the ability to disclaim it. Say, 'No, we don't want that.'…Because the title shows the County as being the owner, you guys really make the first call.

Commissioner Murphy said he asked County Manager Kraus if the City had reached out to him and was told that it hadn’t. “They've crawled in a hole; throwed this down the road; I will not support that.”

Commissioner Hollingsworth said, “I don't think any member of any side has ever said destroy that monument... I don't care what they were fighting over -- what they weren't fighting over, the reason really doesn't matter. It was a war, and men died fighting. And we have to honor them. And I think that everybody agrees with that -- everybody.”

Commissioner Murphy said, “This is not a black and white issue. It should never have been a black and white issue."

After Mr. Murphy advised that he "didn't have a racist bone" in his body, he continued, "If it did go to a vote, I'd leave it there right where it is."

The Motion

Chairman Rocky Ford
Chairman Rocky Ford. He gave everyone the chance to be heard.

Chairman Ford asked for a motion.

Commissioner Murphy said, “I make a motion to not deed the property to the City.

Commissioner Witt seconded the motion.

Commissioner Murphy said, “Either the residents of the County want us to keep the park and keep the statue, or they don't.”

Chairman Ford said, “If the County doesn't deed the Park to the City, from this point on, we own the Park. I am not going to re-address the issue."

Chairman Ford called for the vote.

The vote was 4-1 not to give the Park to the City.

Civil Until It Wasn’t

After the vote, Sylvester Warren walked up to where the Commissioners sat, faced them and looked at them, and one by one, except for Commissioner Williams, said, "You're a lyin' piece of shit; you're a lyin' piece of shit; you're a lyin' piece of shit; you're a lyin' piece of shit."

Chairman Ford said, "You're out of line. I'm not having this at my meeting."

When Mr. Warren spoke back, Chairman Ford looked at the Sheriff's Deputy and said, "Remove him."

Chairman Ford had a change of heart. "You can be removed, or you can sit down, but you're not going to disrupt my meeting. I'm not putting up with that. I'm not the City."

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