The city plans to name the appointees to the Confederate Memorial Contextualization Advisory Committee at the regular commission meeting scheduled for Jan. 22. This monument was placed in St. Augustine’s Plaza 140 years ago. The other obelisk in the Plaza, the monument to the Spanish Constitution of 1812, was built more than 200 years ago.
The Spanish Constitution Monument sits where it was placed in 1813, when St. Augustine was still a part of the Spanish empire. The monument was aligned with the entrance to St. Augustine’s Catholic parish church, now the Cathedral-Basilica. In 1879, the monument to the Civil War dead was relocated from private property to the Plaza onto a square of land that was leased from the city of St. Augustine.
In light of the debate today, it is interesting to note that when the Confederate monument was erected, the nearby pavilion was called near the Public Market building or City Meat Market. About 1890, two enterprising photographers thought they could sell more photographs of the market building to tourists if they associated the site with slavery. They rebranded the open-air structure “The Old Slave Market.” The name stuck.
Both obelisk monuments are prominent features in photos and drawings of the Plaza made in the late 1800s. These old images show no tall trees in the Plaza and the tops of both monuments are not so obscured by limbs and leaves as they are today. The open, almost-treeless landscape of the late 1800s still reflected the role and requirements for a main plaza in a Spanish colony.
St. Augustine’s Plaza is the oldest public space in the United States, created in the late 1500s. It was a place for parades, ceremonies, commemorations, announcements of official news, for sharing unsubstantiated gossip, and to carry out punishments. Spanish regulations required that a city’s main plaza be large enough to accommodate parades with horses. St. Augustine’s Plaza is about the minimum size set forth in the ordinances for towns. Over time, sidewalks and paved streets have eaten away at the Plaza’s dimensions and it appears smaller today than in past centuries. Imagine the Plaza reaching right to the door of the Cathedral as it once did.
Spanish St. Augustine had only one official or formal plaza. Larger cities had many plazas, but still only one main plaza. There were other smaller plazas (plazuelas) in our city that arose informally out of unused or open spaces, sort of default parks and often short-lived. I recall seeing a comment about a plazuela somewhere south of today’s King Street. Someone had translated its name as “Plazuela of the Iguanas,” which puzzled me. After examining the old Spanish writing and spelling, I concluded that the word was not “iguanas,” but “igueras” and that neighborhood “park” was probably “Plazuela of the Fig Trees (Igueras),” which made more sense.
A year ago as I stood at the microphone in the Plaza’s gazebo and near the Confederate Memorial during the Women’s March, I reminded the crowd that the Plaza was a space this community had been gathering in longer than any other place in our nation. In the late 1500s, when the Plaza was created, St. Augustine was a medley of persons — white, black, Native Americans and the mingling of them. There were persons from Europe, Africa, Asia and North and South America. This was a mixed community, where people had to negotiate how they would live with each other. We have been working at this challenge in St. Augustine earlier and longer than any other place in the United States.
The creation and appointment of the Confederate Memorial Contextualization Advisory Committee reminds us that, despite our city’s age, we are still working at living together.
Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.