County pulls four flags from Bay Center
December 15, 2014
A lone American flag flapped in the wind in front of the Pensacola Bay Center on Friday morning.
That followed a decision Thursday night by the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners to fly only the American and Florida flags at county facilities, which was spurred by the county’s previous controversial practice of flying a Confederate battle flag at the center.
Originally, the board was to consider replacing the Confederate battle flag, which is actually the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee and a flag that many historians believe never flew over Pensacola, with the First National Flag of the Confederacy, the so-called Stars and Bars flag the city uses in its Five Flags displays.
A Tale of Two Flags: The Confederacy and Pensacola
For now, the American flag continues to fly, with the other four — the Spanish, French, British and Confederate flags — all having been taken down. The flag of the state of Florida may also fly at the center. The board’s motion was specifically to allow only the American and Florida flags to fly at county facilities. Whether a Florida flag would be raised at the Bay Center where one had not previously flown is unclear.
More than a dozen people spoke before the board at their Thursday night meeting on both sides of the issue.
Sons of Confederate Veterans member Tommy Ratchford gave a presentation detailing the history of several Confederate flags, and encouraged the commissioners to consider replacing the battle flag with the Third National Flag of the Confederacy.
"I struggle with what I was going to say here today, I understand people have a problem with the concept of slavery, but every flag that flies in the Five Flags represents a country that has something to do with slavery," he said. "This (Confederate battle flag), the soldier’s flag, certainly has been adopted by hate groups, left wing radicals, white supremacists, but not with the permission or the acknowledgment of the Sons of Confederate veterans. We never gave anybody permission to use this flag that way."
However, more people spoke out against the flag.
"I still find the Confederate battle flag to be very offensive," said Marine Col. Jim Smith, a black man. "I’m a member of a community service club and we meet at the Bay Center twice a month. I’ve had numerous visitors and speakers ask why is that flag flying when it’s flown nowhere else in the city or the county."
The decision to remove not just the Confederate battle flag, but the other three national flags, as well, was seemingly inspired by an impassioned speech by newly elected commissioner Doug Underhill that referenced his military background.
"When each of us took an oath to lead this county, we took an oath to this flag," he said, pointing to the American flag hanging behind the commissioners. "This is the flag of Escambia County, this one flag. As much as I love my Southern heritage and my Southern past, it is my American present and my American future for which I was willing to lay down my life. So as we go forward thinking about that, putting any other flag on the dais with this one is an insult not to our past, but to our present and our future."
Following Underhill’s remarks, Commissioner Lumon May made a motion to fly only the American and Florida flags at all county facilities. After some procedural back and forth, that motion passed 4-1.
Viewpoint: Why fly the five flags?
Commissioner Wilson Robertson cast the lone dissenting vote, having voiced support for replacing the battle flag with the Third National Flag as Ratchford had suggested. Robertson was the only commissioner still on the board from a time 15 years ago when the board had considered the same issue and decided the battle flag should remain.
"I’m proud of my Southern heritage and I’ll say that to anyone, and I will not apologize for the vote we took 15 years ago," Robertson said ahead of Thursday’s vote.
Of the five governments whose flags have flown over Pensacola in its more than 450-year history, the Confederacy’s reign was by far the shortest. Secession was declared in Florida on Jan. 10, 1861. But by May of 1862 following the Battle of Pensacola, Confederate forces abandoned the city learning that the Union had taken New Orleans. The Confederate battle flag as it’s known today didn’t become popularized until after Pensacola had returned to Union control.
In 2000, after reviewing photographs and consulting local historians, then city manager Tom Bonfield replaced the city’s battle flags with Stars and Bars flags.
No discussion was made at Thursday’s meeting as for what to do with the now empty flag poles at the Bay Center. Commissioner Robinson said it would be up to the county’s Facilities Management office and county administrator Jack Brown to decide what to do with them.