Here’s the note I sent to Mr. Kiser in response to his e-mail about the Gamble Plantation State Park, and the Judah Benjamin Memorial there.
Dear Mr. Kiser,
Thank you for your thoughtful reply to my letter. Of course, I don’t mind an e-mail response. I included by e-mail address for that purpose.
I applaud the park’s plan to include more material about the actual residents of the Gamble Plantation before the Civil War. The private foundations that run Mt. Vernon and Monticello have made significant efforts, including archeological research, to include the role of slaves and of slavery in their history, and it will be useful if the Gamble Plantation does so.
This review of the new Smithsonian African American museum says that it includes a surviving slave shack, transferred from South Carolina.
This article, with photographs from that museum, has a picture of that cabin in the photo that shows the statue of Clara Brown. The caption says the shack dates from 1853, which is the time of the Gamble Plantation.
My wife and I walked through the displays you cite, and I think that they are important. But the overall impression I had from walking through the Museum and the house was that I was in a shrine to Judah Benjamin, which I suppose is the purpose of the UDC.
We visited the Plantation on a Sunday afternoon. My wife is a church organist and pianist in Sun City Center, and we drove over after church. The uniformed park worker, on duty alone that day, gave the tour. I didn’t mean to criticize him. I thought he was clear in his explanations, had interesting things to say, and when I inquired about the slaves, their work and lives, he was knowledgeable and informative. It’s just, as I said, the impression the park gave to me was that it was a shrine to Benjamin, an important Confederate figure who had little to do with Florida, and that it didn’t reflect actual life on the Manatee river in the 1850s in the early years of Florida’s statehood.
I’m not surprised to learn about the reverter clause. Perhaps you have read about the case of Confederate Memorial Hall at Vanderbilt University, built with a $50,000 bequest from the local UDC chapter. To remove the word Confederate from the building, a court required the University to return the UDC’s money, with a adjustment for inflation and interest. It came to $1.2 million, for which the University, somehow, found a private donor.
In the 1920s, Florida was a racist, segregated home of Jim Crow laws and Lost Cause theorizing. I’m sure that the Florida government at that time, no doubt entirely white, had interests aligned with those of the UDC. Thus it made sense to them to take over the maintenance of the Judah Benjamin Memorial at public expense. It doesn’t make sense today, however, for Florida to maintain a pretty historical park that is not welcoming to a sixth of Florida’s residents because it places little emphasis on the contributions of their ancestors to the plantation and to pre-Civil War Florida, and misinforms the rest of us as to the realities of that time by misplaced emphasis.
I’m not surprised to learn about the Florida’s legislative initiative to preserve the Memorial, and I wonder what local or national events might have led them to consider the legislation necessary. The South Carolina legislature enacted a law in the 1960s to require that the Confederate Battle Flag fly over their statehouse in response to the great civil rights laws of that time.
I’d enjoy talking with you at the Plantation, and if you’d like to suggest a couple of mornings and times in the next couple of weeks when you would be available, I’ll choose one and come for a visit. If you are available either Friday morning or Sunday afternoon, my wife, a Tampa native who had never heard about the Gamble Plantation until I began reading Florida history, would join us. Other mornings, you’d just get me.
I’ve attached an essay I wrote published last year in the Tampa Tribune.