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Remembering History By Forgetting It

A familiar controversy is playing out in Hollywood, Florida, where leaders recently voted to strip the names of three Confederate leaders from city streets. Some residents are upset at losing what they see as a piece of local history.

But if they really knew their local history, I expect most of these opponents would readily swing to the other side.

The City Commission voted 5-1 to rename Forrest, Hood and Lee streets, following more than five hours of heated community debate. Residents disagreed not only on whether the names should be changed, but what new names would be appropriate; Commissioner Peter Hernandez left the dais in what the Miami Herald described as “a huff” over a perceived lack of respect for procedure. And while the timing had nothing to do with the events in Charlottesville a few weeks prior – the process had begun months before – the national discussion about the future of Confederate monuments, memorials and statutes undeniably influenced the tone of the debate.

Hollywood, which sits between Fort Lauderdale and Miami on the state’s east coast, was founded in 1925 amid the first South Florida real estate boom. The Civil War had ended 60 years earlier. Florida was part of the Confederacy, and doubtless some of the city’s early citizens came from farther north in the state and had relatives who fought for the South. Hollywood itself, however, never seceded from the Union.

It was indeed part of the South culturally, though – as was all of Broward County and the rest of Florida.

Just up the road from downtown Hollywood is an undeveloped beach, now part of Von D. Mizell and Eula Johnson State Park. But the place has had many names. Before this one, it was known as John U. Lloyd State Park. Before that, it was the “colored beach.”

Mizell and Johnson are the first African-Americans to be honored in Florida with a state park named for them. The honor is particularly fitting as the two activists famously led demonstrations in which black residents waded into the waters of a then whites-only beach in Fort Lauderdale. The “wade-ins” made national headlines and eventually attracted civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. (And, speaking of streets, Fort Lauderdale named one in Johnson’s honor in 2001.) Mizell and Johnson’s courage is well worth commemorating. Lloyd, on the other hand, served as Broward County Attorney during a time when part of his job involved keeping the area’s beaches segregated.

The integration battles of the 1960s followed years of segregation and institutionalized racism in Florida, even in parts of the state that were wilderness during the Confederacy. The early 20th century brought the reign of terror of Broward County’s infamously racist and corrupt Sheriff Walter Clark and his brother and deputy, Bob Clark. In 1935, the lynching of 37-year-old Reuben Stacey, reportedly with Bob Clark’s direct participation and almost certainly with Walter Clark’s approval, brought national attention to South Florida when Life magazine published a photo of the event. The NAACP subsequently used the image to try to garner support for an anti-lynching bill. Stacey’s murder was one of 331 reported lynchings in Florida between 1877 and 1950.

This is the real history of Hollywood – a town that stood proudly as part of the segregated, racist South, and which honored its adopted heritage by also adopting the leaders of war for the defense of slavery, in which that city never took part.

I am not a zealot when it comes to removing the South’s statues and other Civil War memorials. I recognize that many were erected by the widows, daughters and granddaughters of men who fought and died in gray uniforms. Most of those men, by the way, never owned slaves – you could not have filled the Confederate ranks at Gettysburg with slaveholders of military age. Some one-fifth of the South’s soldiers were draftees. They were remembered, in many cases, by proxy through the idolization of their leaders and the glorification of their “lost cause.” But they were still people’s fathers and sons and brothers.

However, not a single resident of Hollywood, Florida, could have served under the Confederate banner. The naming of Hollywood streets for rebel leaders recalls the city’s history, for sure – but not the history anyone wants to honor. If we remind Hollywood and the rest of Broward County of the truth about the past, a lot of recalcitrant attitudes may change in a hurry.

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