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Columbia County Observer

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After 92 Years, Lake City's Confederate Olustee Memorial Will Finally Get a Public Hearing

LAKE CITY, COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Two weeks after the untimely death of George Floyd, the City Council was confronted by a nation removing post Civil War monuments throughout the South and a request by community activist Sylvester Warren to remove Lake City's 1928 Confederate Memorial Monument in its downtown Olustee Park.

On June 12, City Manager Joe Helfenberger put the item on the City meeting agenda. Led by City Councilman Chris Greene, the City Council removed the item from the agenda and moved it to July 20. On Monday evening, the discussion was postponed again; this time to August 10.


In 1928, 63 years after the end of the Civil War, a stone obelisk was erected in Olustee Park in downtown Lake City "to perpetuate in loving memory the 151 soldiers of the Confederate Army who lost their lives in the Battle of Olustee." (From the inscription on the monument).

More about the 1864 Battle of Olustee, which occurred in Baker County, can be found here:  Battle of Olustee Festival:  Revisionist...

The Lake City/Columbia County area was a bastion of Deep South traditional thinking at least well into the early 70's when the school district was finally desegregated. Many people think not much has changed since then.

Monday Evening: The City Council – Virtual Meeting

The Olustee Confederate Memorial meeting conversation was kicked off by former City Councilman and community activist Glenel Bowden, who thought the time for conversation was over.

Glenel Bowden
Glenel Bowden              Observer Photo

He told the Council: "I have had time to think about whether or not a meeting is wise, particularly the climate that we're in now. I personally and many others in my community don't see that that would be beneficial to have a group of people on each side of the issue are going back and forth while making presentation to the City Council about whether or not the monument should stay there."

Mr. Bowden continued, "I think there is enough history, enough in the public record, where the City Council can make a decision on doing whatever you need to do with the monument... We know that at the time that monument went up it had very little to do with honoring those who got killed at Olustee... There is no real reason for that monument to stay there giving the pain that it is causing too many in our community..." (Mr. Bowden's remarks are abridged).

Sylvester Warren
Sylvester Warren           Observer Photo

Local community activist Sylvester Warren was next to weigh in, "The monument is not mandatory... One thing that I am certain of is that it is on City property... No one is extreme; no one is talkin' about tearin' it up and takin' it down to rubble... We have feelings too. Our feelings have been disregarded for a very long time... We want to have justice in this matter.

The comments were separated by the City Council discussion by about 30 minutes. Mayor Steve Witt was the first to weigh in, telling the Council that because of the coronavirus pandemic he thought the meeting should be postponed until August.

City Councilwoman Melinda Moses said she agreed, "It's just too dangerous."

Councilman Eugene Jefferson
Councilman Eugene Jefferson

City Councilman Eugene Jefferson followed up, "I think it's too risky."

It seemed like none of the City Council members wanted to mention the Confederate monument.

Mayor Witt said, "The issue that was going to be brought up at that time [July 20], I would recommend that it might be brought up and try to do it virtually until we can have open meetings. Whenever that is, if we do it, I would recommend it be past July."

City Councilman Jake Hill jumped in, "So are we going to continue to put this off?"

It was common knowledge that the City IT department was having issues using the Webex platform. Many times City Manager Helfenberger told this reporter he was going to change platforms. He never followed through.

Mayor Witt's next comment reflected the frustration with the Webex platform, "If  you'all want to try and do it virtually we could try to do it. I think it's a tough thing to do."

Councilman Hill was getting impatient. "My take on it is. You see, we're not tryin' to tear no statute down. The battle was fought in Olustee [Baker County]. The soldiers are buried in the cemetery. The monument is on public property; so what's the problem? It needs to be relocated."

Mayor Steve Witt
Lake City Mayor Steve Witt

Mayor Witt told the Council, "The two issues I do know of is one, there are some history items we need to be finalized and we gotta' do somethin' about cost and what that would entail and how we're gonna' do that, no matter what we do with it, so we know what we can afford.  We need to get those answers quickly."

For about a month the City Clerk has been trying to get those answers. However, the City's "On Board" search engine has been down and none of the City brass seem to be able to have the company fix it, leaving the Clerk's Office to manually search through records that would otherwise be available with the click of a mouse.

Councilman Hill repeated his opinion that the monument "needs to be in a different location."

Mayor Witt asked for addition comments and was met by silence.

The Mayor asked, "Do you think we ought a' make new plans or look at it again in a couple of weeks?"

Melinda Moses
Councilwoman Melinda Moses

Councilwoman Moses inquired, "I don't understand?"

The Mayor explained, "About the virtual meeting, should we have virtual meetings already into August or try to just look at it again in a couple of weeks?"

Ms. Moses said, "I feel like we definitely need the virtual meeting July 20... I really have no problem with making that decision or at least talking about it on the 20th."

Councilman Jefferson weighed in, "About doing it virtually?

Councilwoman Moses answered, "Yes. I know it's not the best."

Mayor Witt said, "It would be hard to manage. Last time we were lucky that there weren't (sic) as many people as I thought."

Councilwoman Moses said, "That's my concern, that there'll be lots of phone calls. You want a lot of people to express their opinion, but I hate to drag it on. Possibly we could say the first meeting in August. I don't know."

Mayor Witt explained that he had spoken with the City Manager and that Manager Helfenberger was working on having a meeting on August 10 in the school board auditorium.

The Mayor said, "If we're able to we will do it live; if we're not we'll do it virtually and just let it go and just plan on August 10."

Then the Mayor asked City Manager Helfenberger, "Mr. Helfenberger, do you have any idea how we can do it virtually?"

The City Manager had told this reporter that he was going to switch platforms to Zoom at least three times in the past couple of months.

Mr. Helfenberger answered, "We will, we'll practice tryin' to have something more clear for that. I'll have to work with IT and see if we can come up with some improvements on it from what it is."

It wasn't clear if anyone knew what the City Manager was talking about.

Coronavirus: the invisible enemy

City Councilman Chris Greene
City Councilman Chris Greene

Councilman Chris Greene weighed in, "As long as Columbia County continues to have increased cases of Covid, I would not want to have in-person meetings. I wouldn't want to commit to having those meetings as long as our cases are increasing. I just think it's not the responsible thing to do... I think the responsible thing to do is to do that virtually until Columbia County cases are going down."

Councilwoman Moses, "I totally agree."


Joe Helfenberger: City ManagerOn August 10 the Olustee Confederate Monument question will finally come before the City Council.

Will City Manager Helfenberger be able to deliver a meeting platform that works for the public?

So far he hasn't been able to. This time it looks like the world will be watching.

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