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Key West's Dueling Civil War Memorials Serve As Monuments To Tolerance


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Ever since the church shootings in Charleston, S.C., in June, symbols of the Confederacy are getting new attention across the South. But there's one place - the southernmost city in the continental United States - where memorials from the Union and the Confederacy are side by side. From member station WLRN, Nancy Klingener reports. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly refer to Key West as the southernmost city and point in the U.S. While that description is accurate within the Lower 48, Hawaii and its capital city, Honolulu, are farther south.]

NANCY KLINGENER, BYLINE: Tom Theisen has lived in Key West for almost 30 years. He spends most days riding his bike around the island. He never noticed until recently that the big, white pavilion in a city park is a memorial to soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy.

TOM THEISEN: I had no idea. I mean, I had probably seen it before, but I never - crossed my mind until all the flag stuff.

KLINGENER: By flag stuff, Theisen is referring to the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in South Carolina. But Key West isn't tearing down its Confederate memorial. In fact, the city is fixing it up. And that's not all it's doing. It's also restoring a nearby monument dedicated to Union soldiers from New York. Those soldiers died of yellow fever when they were stationed here during the Civil War. The Confederate memorial was dedicated in 1924 at the height of the Jim Crow era.

CLAYTON LOPEZ: But we've got an answer for that this year.

KLINGENER: Clayton Lopez is a Key West city commissioner.

LOPEZ: We're going to be putting up, finally, a memorial to the Union soldiers - the African-American Union soldiers that signed on to the Union army here in Key West.

KLINGENER: The Union army was recruiting in Key West because the island never became part of the Confederacy. A quick-thinking Army captain occupied the fort that was still under construction when Florida seceded in 1861. A few people from Key West left town during the war according to historians. But local sentiment at the time was basically neutral.

TOM HAMBRIGHT: A majority of the settlers, probably, at that time was from the Bahamas, who had settled the civil slavery question 20 years before really.

KLINGENER: Tom Hambright is the historian at the Monroe County Public Library. It was his research that led to the new statue dedicated to the black Union soldiers. He says the side-by-side memorials are probably no accident. A New York memorial was built in 1930 - six years after the Confederate pavilion.

HAMBRIGHT: The Confederate memorial was put there first, and then they come along and said, well, we're going to put up a memorial. Well, where else are you going to put it? We got the park there. So we tolerate one another, so they tolerated that.

KLINGENER: In the years since, those memorials have been joined by monuments to World War II, the Korean War and a new one for the Vietnam War. Until recently none of these got much attention. Key West makes a big deal out of its location as the nation's southernmost point. But it doesn't feel like part of the South. Like a lot of Florida, it's been shaped by immigrants from everywhere. That includes the Bahamas, Cuba and the northern U.S. states. Clayton Lopez is the only African-American member of the city commission. But he said he has no problem with the city fixing up the Confederate memorial.

LOPEZ: I'm glad that we're actually doing it. We have to preserve it. I mean, why would we hide what actually happened? Good or bad - it's what happened, you know? (Laughter).

KLINGENER: These aren't the only Civil War memorials on the island. Near the harbor, there's an obelisk that was put up by Key West's Navy club in 1866. It's dedicated to Union soldiers and sailors who died here during the war. That Union monument is surrounded by a low cast-iron fence. A plaque names its builder - J.V. Harris, Confederate veteran. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Klingener in Key West, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 5, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
We incorrectly refer to Key West as the southernmost city and point in the U.S. While that description is accurate within the Lower 48, Hawaii and its capital city, Honolulu, are farther south.
Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.