The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted unanimously on Tuesday to take the next step toward placing a new statue on the West Lawn of the county administration building in downtown Gainesville.
Alachua County opened up the process for community nominations in August. Of those received, the Alachua County Historical Commission voted in November for a top three to send to the BOCC.
The top three names were Dr. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, Rev. Thomas Wright and Dr. Cullen Banks.
Hilliard-Nunn received the nod from the commission, but some members of the public and commissioners expressed concern about installing a straight statue of Hilliard-Nunn.
“I really like the idea of honoring their contributions and their work versus an effigy,” Commissioner Anna Prizzia said.
Commissioner Mary Alford said she appreciated the three persons nominated but wondered if a statue representing the faces of Alachua County over time might work better.
She mentioned another idea passed along to her that would put electricity at the site to make it a mini stage, letting artists perform during certain times.
The commission has tried to fill the spot before, sending out a call to artists and not receiving replies. After increasing the financing, the commission got two responses, both trees, but turned them down.
Another project garnered support for a Gainesville Megaphone, but artists didn’t get behind the idea and it ended.
Commissioner Ken Cornell said he wanted something to go into the spot that countered the purpose of the old statue.
The now empty concrete slab used to house “Old Joe,” a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier. The Daughters of the Confederacy donated the statue in 1904, and it was removed in 2017. The organization placed it at a cemetery near Micanopy.
“For me, I like that space being something that represents that,” Cornell said. “That represents truth and recon. That represents peace. That represents justice. That represents, essentially, in my mind, the elimination of institutional racism, which is what Joe was put there to symbolize.”
He said he didn’t feel strongly about putting any of the three nominees in the spot, though they deserved recognition.
During public comment, Kali Blount said a statue in Hilliard-Nunn’s honor would be powerful. But he hoped the commission would choose something more symbolic like the Sankofa Bird that Hilliard-Nunn related to.
“So to represent a concept that she championed rather than a person is a great possibility,” Blount said.
The idea stuck.
Prizzia motioned that the commission put out a call for an artist that would submit ideas up to $100,000 for a statue in honor of Hilliard-Nunn that conceptualizes the Sankofa Bird.
That funding cap includes a $50,000 matching grant the county has been offered. Alford seconded the motion with Cornell also voicing support for the idea.
He read to the commission the meaning behind the bird:
“The word “Sankofa” can be translated to mean, “go back to the past and bring forward that which is useful.” The bird is rendered as twisting its beak behind itself, in order to bring forth an egg from its back.
“Connecting the past with the present allows us to be more effective agents in shaping our understanding of the forces that will have an impact on our collective future as citizens of the planet. We all share the responsibility for defining the terms by which we live. We honor those who have shown us the way and taught us the strategies for survival, endurance and growth.”
Cornell said the idea of the Sankofa Bird tied in well with Alachua County’s own tagline of “Where Nature and Culture Meet.”
Hilliard-Nunn was an educator and activist in the county who died in August 2020. She studied the history of slavery, platations and lynching, leading to a documentary In the Shadow of Plantations.
She also research the Newberry Six and brought the story of six lynching in Newberry to light.
She served as director of the Community Outreach Partnership Center at UF and adjunct associate professor at the school’s African American Studies Program.
The community member who added her as a nomination wrote in the submittal, “Her commitment to African Americans, and the community of Alachua County was irreplicable.”