By MARK HOLAN The Tampa Tribune
Published: Jan 19, 2007
TAMPA – A Hillsborough County proclamation honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee has angered some black leaders.
"That’s a slap in the face to every African-American, Hispanic, and every minority in the county," said Curtis Stokes, president of the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP.
The proclamation, marking today’s 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth in Virginia, also has county commissioners rethinking how they bestow such honorariums.
Commission Chairman Jim Norman read the "Year of Lee" proclamation Thursday as members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy stood in front of the commission dais.
"Now, therefore, be it proclaimed," Norman read, "that the Board of County Commissioners of Hillsborough County, Florida, does hereby designate January 19, 2007 as the Bicentennial Birthday of Robert Edward Lee and proclaims 2007 the ‘Year of Lee’ in Hillsborough County and encourages all citizens to learn more about the life of Lee and attend the State’s seminars and celebration tributes in his memory."
Commissioner Kevin White followed minutes later with a commendation honoring community activist James A. Hammond. White and Hammond are black.
An elementary school opening in Odessa this year is being named for Hammond, who has been involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Greater Tampa Urban League. Hammond, 77, accepted the board’s recognition for his "long history of promoting education and race relations" without commenting on the Lee proclamation.
White also made no mention of Lee.
But before the board’s public comment segment ended, Riverview lawyer Clinton Paris, who attended the meeting to watch Hammond being honored, approached the dais and blasted the board.
Paris said Lee committed treason against the United States by joining the Confederacy. Had Lee’s effort been successful, Paris said, blacks such as himself, Hammond, White and County Attorney Renee Lee would not be where they are today.
"I fail to recognize how Hillsborough County is better today as a result of that proclamation," Paris said afterward. "They did it in front of Jim Hammond as if to say, ‘Before we get to you, let’s get the Confederacy up in front of you to remind you of your place.’"
Lee was accused of treason but never brought to trial. He was posthumously pardoned by President Ford in 1975.
"I can understand attorney Paris’ concerns and comments," Hammond said later. "But today was my parade, and nothing was going to rain on it. It was quite an honor."
Norman downplayed the controversy.
"It wasn’t meant to harm or hurt anybody or anything like that," Norman said after the meeting. "We get these [proclamations] all the time on every subject you can think of."
Dade City resident Dean Leferink, commander the local Sons of Confederate camp and a Pasco High School history teacher, said he was not surprised by the uproar.
"This is the reaction of people who dislike the Confederacy," Leferink said.
He said Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy honored his commitment to family, the state of Virginia and the Constitution.
"Lee wasn’t a traitor," Leferink said. "If the South was wrong for fighting for independence, then the 13 colonies were wrong for fighting against the British Empire."
The proclamation was added to the commission’s previously published agenda early Thursday. White said after the meeting that another setting might have been more appropriate for the honor.
"I can respect everyone wanting to honor their heritage," he said.
Stokes, the NAACP president, said White should have spoken up during the meeting to protest the proclamation.
"By sitting there in silence, they all are agreeing with what Norman did," Stokes said.
Lee, the county attorney, said she thought there was "some merit" to the comments by Paris. Other county employees, white and black, said they were disturbed by how the two honors unfolded Thursday.
Commissioner Brian Blair said he was surprised by the protest since the county also honors Martin Luther King Jr. without any complaints from Confederate groups.
"I thought it was an awkward moment for the commission," Commissioner Al Higginbotham said.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe asked Lee to review the process of awarding proclamations.
Commissioners said they frequently sign stacks of blank proclamation forms that later are completed by county staff as requests arrive from the public.
"I’m not sure where it will go," Sharpe said. "People want to honor and remember important parts of our history, and that’s fine. But I want to look at the whole thing."
WHEREAS, Robert Edward Lee was born to Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee III and Ann Hill Carter Lee at Stratford, Westmoreland County, Virginia on the 19th day of January, in the year of our Lord 1807; and
WHEREAS, Robert Edward Lee graduated from the West Point Military Academy in 1829, second in his class and without a single demerit; and
WHEREAS, Colonel Robert E. Lee served in the United States Army for 32 years, and was offered command of Federal Forces at the outset of the War Between the States; and
WHEREAS, Colonel Robert E. Lee declined that offer and chose instead to link his fate with the Confederate States of America; and
WHEREAS, Brigadier-General Robert E. Lee returned to Georgia in November 1861 and took command of the coastal defenses of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida; and
WHEREAS, After the War Between the States, Robert E. Lee helped rebuild the nation by serving as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, which was renamed Washington-Lee College in his honor; and
WHEREAS, The military genius of Robert. E. Lee continues to be studied in many schools, his teachings are still inspiring today, and he remains a hero among many Americans, young and old:
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT PROCLAIMED that the Board of County Commissioners of Hillsborough County, Florida, does hereby designate January 19, 2007 as the Bicentennial Birthday of Robert Edward Lee and proclaims 2007 the "Year of Lee" in Hillsborough County and encourages all citizens to learn more about the life of Lee and attend the State’s seminars and celebration tributes in his memory.
Executed this 18th day of January, 2007
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