Past debates over Pensacola’s Confederate flag displays offer some insight into Mayor Grover Robinson’s reluctance to deal with the city’s Confederate monuments.
He saw the flag debates as one about Southern culture and heritage – both of which he felt should be preserved as the city has done its Spanish, English and French heritages and honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr with a bust and renaming part of Alcaniz Street.
In his defense of flying a Confederate flag at the Pensacola Bay Center, Robinson wrote a viewpoint in February 2015 calling those who wanted the flag removed intolerant and not appreciating the “diversity of culture within our community.”
He wrote,”In fact almost every culture we have in this community is disliked by someone else within our community. However, the bigger importance is the tolerance and respect we show in allowing those symbols to be displayed and realizing the diversity within our community. If one culture cannot respect another culture, how can they expect to promote their own?”
But we have to go further back to understand Grover’s feelings about the Civil War from his family’s perspective.
In December 2014, the Escambia County Commission voted 4-1 to remove the five-flag display, which included the Confederate battle flag, from the county property and replace it with the U.S. flag.
Commissioner Wilson Robertson was the lone negative vote. In 2000, Robertson was the commissioner who made the motion to fly the battle flag at the county-owned civic center.
The item had been placed on the agenda by Commissioner Grover Robinson with the intent of replacing the battle flag with the first flag used by the Confederacy – “Stars & Bars.” In defense of his position, Robinson read a written statement of his family’s history dating back before the American Revolution. He shared stories of his ancestors that must been passed down from generation to generation:
“I am the documented direct descendant of Moore Fauntleroy. He moved to the New World in the 1640s in the colony of Virginia. Why is that important? Because in 1640, Virginia was, in fact, it was the only colony that remained a royal colony, despite the fact that there was no king in England. That’s because Moore Fauntleroy, even though he had lands and titles in England, if he had stayed he would have been separated from his head in England, so he came to this land, which became this country.
“He settled there in Virginia and began to raise his family and continued. In the 1700s, my family also fought in another civil war that began the birthplace of this country and the separation from England and a belief, again, a situation of independence. Later, Moore Fauntleroy had a descendant, Judith Fauntleroy, who came to visit her sister in Escambia County, and she fell in love with a Army officer, R.C. Colwell.
“It was at the beginning to build the forts here and the installations of a Navy base. In the 1840s, they built a house which stood until the early 20th century, about the teens, at the corner of Palafox and Gregory. At that time, that was literally the unincorporated area. That was out in the country. So the county really started at that point in 1840. We’ve gone a long way.
“But, at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, her son, my great-great-grandfather, left the house and registered in the Confederate army. He was brought back to the house because he was only 13 years old. His mother said, Judith Fauntleroy said, “If he wants to fight for his country, he’s more than welcome to.”
“At that point, he turned around, and joined the army. He did not return back to Pensacola for over four years fighting during the entire war. He did not die in the war, but he died of a short life, unfortunately, from injuries, other things sustained from what happened during the battle that ensued.
“I guess, as things move on, I certainly have that heritage in my life, but I also have the heritage of my grandfather who served as a judge in this community and an attorney in the 1950s, who had African American clients and served causes, certainly not because of what he could afford to make from them, but because he believed they were right. So I’ve seen both sides of this issue and all of the items related to it.
“I certainly wish to honor those individuals who either fought or believed in their history and their heritage. And I think it was very difficult for us to say at one point, “I can’t respect you in flying any type of flag,” but I do think at the other side, if we do not respect the individuals in saying something that has been commandeered as it has over the last 150 years to describe hate and hateful events, I think that is also something that, to me, is not the symbol of Escambia County.
“I brought this forward and I knew the controversy that would happen, certainly because of my own internal struggles and family and ties in so many ways to this issue. But I believe looking at the city of Pensacola and what has happened for 15 years, the symbol, I think you probably have this pin. I saw Commissioner Underhill had this pin on earlier. It has the five flags, it has the Stars and Bars, our first national flag, or whatever we want to call it.
“I certainly know as well, the Fiesta Five Flags flies that flag, even the Five Flags Speedway flies that flag. And I know, while I certainly respect Mr. Smith and is a appointee of mine, it flies at our church *** as well in symbolizing the Five Flags. That building was certainly also desecrated during the occupation as was, I guess, Judith Fauntleroy. She lost all of her, essentially, possessions she could not take to Greenville at the time after the war.
“This is emotional, because it does tie on so many different issues. But when I look at that, I don’t see how we can continue to fly or any resemblance of it because of the challenge it has. But I also don’t think there’s any way we can go with the absence of a flag because of the same situation. How do we choose winners and losers in our community?
“With that in mind, I would like to make a motion that we replace the battle flag that currently flies at the Pensacola Bay Center with the Stars and Bars, and that we take an affirmative vote to do so at the earliest convenience if that vote passes.”
How the December 2014 Meeting Played Out
Before Robinson received a second to his motion to substitute a different Confederate flag, Commissioner Lumon May offered a substitute motion, asking the board to first agree to take down the battle flag before deciding what other flag to fly. His motion passed 5-0.
Then Robinson and Robertson made motions for different Confederate flags. Neither motion received a second.
Commissioner May seized the moment and made the motion to take down the remaining flags, except for the U.S. flag.
“That is the flag that flies over every other county building,” said May. “It’s flag that our children pledge allegiance to in school.”
When it was clear that May had the support of the majority of the board, Commissioner Robinson asked that they simply rescind the previous action that took down only the Confederate battle flag and vote in one motion to take down at the Pensacola Bay Center all flags except that U.S. flag – which passed.
The March 2015 Vote
Three months later. Commissioner Robinson would bring back the flag issue and win a 3-2 vote to allow the five historical flags approved by the Pensacola City Council to be flown over all county buildings.
Robinson again argued that Confederacy was part of the city’s heritage and culture.
“We have 250 years of colonial history that is Spanish, English, French. Many people have asked why we did away with celebrating that heritage, why we took the decision we did,” he said about the December vote. “It became so much about one issue, and it’s unfortunate in an area that we just talked about tourism and what we’re trying to do in the sense of the rich heritage we have. And instead, we’re wanting to shelve it because we’re getting upset.”
He pointed out how the county had given property and funds to groups such as the Bobby Bearheart Museum and the African American Historical Society.
“We do have a variety of other statues to generals and conquistadors and Martin Luther King in this community, ” he said. “Escambia County is big enough to realize all of the historical context that we have and the diversity of the historical culture that we have in this community.”
He talked about how the News Journal had come out in favor of keeping the Confederate flag in an editorial that argued Pensacola should “continue to display our history and not forget that heritage.”
“I simply ask that you take a look at it in trying to think about how we deal with the vast diversity of culture and heritage and history that we have across our community, and find ways to display it and honor it in a way that can work with everyone and be respectful about it,” said Robinson.
He took a shot at those who spoke against his position: “And it is unfortunate that people will come up here and say every manner of thing against you. That just continues to put us in a more divisive part than us trying to find ways to work together.”
Replaced in June 2015
The aftermath of the shootings at AME church in Charleston, SC, Mayor Ashton Hayward replaced the Confederate flag with the Florida state flag in city displays in late June 2015 – which led the county doing the same.
***A reader pointed out that Robinson’s church, Christ Church, removed the flag after he made this comment. The Episcopal church no longer flies any Confederate flag.