Dancers and drumbeats created a festive atmosphere at the unveiling of a statue in honor of the late Dr. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn and her dedication to the remembrance of local African American history on Monday.
The unveiling was both a celebration of Hilliard-Nunn’s life and efforts, and of conclusion to the city of Gainesville’s “Journey to Juneteenth” events.
The statue portrays the Sankofa bird, a West African symbol of embracing the past in order to live rightly in the future. The bird’s feet and body are firmly planted forward, but its head is turned backward, holding an egg in its mouth.
The new Sankofa statue on the West Lawn of the County Administration Building replaced a statue of a Confederate soldier known as “Old Joe,” which was taken down in 2017. The former statue had been dedicated in 1904 by the Daughters of the Confederacy and was returned to them to be relocated after it became a divisive issue in the community.
Several unsuccessful “Call to Artists” prompted the county to ask the community instead for nominations of prominent, deceased African Americans from Alachua County to serve as inspiration for a replacement statue. Eleven nominations were received and vetted, and the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners selected Hilliard-Nunn from the list.
Patricia Hilliard-Nunn was a local historian, teacher, and community activist whose research centered on the history of racial violence in Alachua County, helping create the Alachua County Community Remembrance Project. Hilliard-Nunn taught African and African American history at the University of Florida, but many at the statue’s unveiling remembered her more for her spirit.
“Patricia brought that memory of inclusion, of love, of ‘let’s all be together. Let’s celebrate our unity in our diversity.’ That was all what she was about,” Kenneth Nunn, Hilliard-Nunn’s husband, said in a speech.
Several of the speakers highlighted Hilliard-Nunn’s efforts for truth and reconciliation in Alachua County. Though she traveled often to Liberia, where she grew up, and to Egypt to give educational tours, Hilliard-Nunn also taught her university and community classes about Sankofa, and dedicated research to unearthing truth about the Newberry Six lynchings.
George Gadson, the artist who created the statue, borrowed Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey’s comparison between rootless trees and a people with no knowledge of their history. He said people must know where they have come from in order to find their purpose and make a difference in the world.
“From what I’ve heard today and what I’ve read about her, Dr. Hilliard was a woman with deep roots,” Gadson said. “She knew her history, and I firmly believe she knew her purpose.”
Another of Hilliard-Nunn’s community involvements was a Wednesday night dance class, which has continued beyond her death in 2020. While Mohamed DaCosta and the Core Drum Ensemble provided the rhythm, members of the dance group invited Hilliard-Nunn’s daughters to begin the dancing with them. After the daughters sat down, the dancers launched into their main choreography.
When the dancers had finished their routine, they invited members of the crowd to join them, and the small performance space quickly filled with family and friends celebrating Hilliard-Nunn’s legacy through dance.
“If you’ve ever seen [Hilliard-Nunn] dance, you know she became the dance,” NKwandah Jah, executive director of the Cultural Arts Coalition said in her remembrance speech. “The drumming came from within her. Instead of the drum being dominant, it was her spirit.”
The dancing was a strong start to the Juneteenth festivities which continued at Bo Diddley Plaza after the statue unveiling, with more local history, Juneteenth history, and musical performances.
Vivian Filer, chair of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center board of directors, pointed out in a speech that Florida already had its Emancipation Day in May, and that celebrating Juneteenth only marks Texas’ emancipation.
“Tricia felt that any day we’re free is a day to honor. So we honor Texas,” Filer said.