Apalach weighs push for fugitive slave marker

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If the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and the Arts wanted to boost the numbers of who comes to view its latest exhibit, they probably couldn’t have better ramped up interest if they tried.


Following the reception a week earlier at the HCA for the new exhibit “Journey to Freedom: The Odyssey of Abolitionist Moses Roper,” Apalachicola Main Street, which secured grants from Duke Energy, Florida Humanities and Weems Memorial Hospital to fund it, is now pushing to have a historical marker placed in Riverfront Park.


At last Tuesday’s city commission meeting, Elinor Mount-Simmons, a leader in H’COLA (The Hillside Coalition of Laborers for Apalachicola), the most prominent Black organization on the Hill, made the request for the marker.


City Commissioner Despina George soon voiced criticism, not of the content of the exhibit, but of Main Street’s strategy to largely sidestep city permissions in pursuit of the project.


In the end, newly sworn-in Mayor Brenda Ash called for the matter to be tabled, a move which George had sought, until no earlier than November’s meeting.
It looks like there may now be more than a casual reason to take in the fascinating exhibit at the HCA, at 86 Water Street, open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.


“I am just here tonight to ask you to support the state historical marker,” said Mount-Simmons, not going into details about Roper’s escape from enslavement aboard a steamship that plied the Apalachicola River, his move to Boston, Massachusetts, where he befriended leading abolitionists before moving to Britain, where his account of slavery became a best-selling book and himself a leading spokesman for the cause.


“Moses Roper was a steward of a ship, and one of his owners was a Scotsman, who had ships that would dock in that area,” she said, referring to Riverfront Park, where the marker has been proposed. “It’s not the exact spot, but the area.”


Ash said she was in favor of the project. “I think it’s important that our history is displayed, that there were other citizens that made contributions to the city of Apalachicola,” she said.


“I am one of the people who had no idea who Mr. Roper was,” said Commissioner Adriane Elliott. “Thank you for bringing Mr. Roper to the forefront of Apalachicola. I look forward to continuing that research throughout this week as well.”


George, a frequent critic of Main Street’s role in community affairs, made clear she didn’t like the process of how this project had unfolded.


“I’m supportive of the subject matter in studying the history of Moses Roper, and its connection to the city of Apalachicola,” she said. “What concerns me is this application filed by Main Street.


“They have sent a well-respected member of our community, so they won’t have to face the hard questions that have to be asked if they applied for it themselves,” George said.


She said Main Street received at least $15,000 in grant funding “for the purpose of having an exhibition in a city building and erecting a historic marker in a city park, all without any involvement from the city of Apalachicola.


“That gives me pause, and if the subject matter was brought by H’COLA I’d be more receptive to it,” George continued. “The city right now is in the throes of still trying to entangle their involvement with Apalachicola Main Street. Over a year ago the city went through a painful process of disassociating itself from its partnership with Apalachicola Main Street and the problems persist to this day.


“We’re up to the fifth or sixth month to get control of this so-called ‘Main Street’ trolley,” she said. “As of today we still don’t have the title.”


George also pointed to a change that had to be made to the Main Street website, so as to eliminate any reference to a partnership with the city and with the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, two groups from which Main Street is largely estranged.


“I think this is a worthwhile project, but I want to understand why all this was done without involving the city,” George said. “The exhibition has already been put in a city building; the city has not given the authorization to install a permanent exhibit.


“I think the antics are shameful, and I’m embarrassed that a respected member of our community was brought here to make this presentation,” George said. “Most people in Apalachicola have not heard of Moses Roper. If there’s an educational process and vetting of information presented, that would be the next logical step. Also whether it’s appropriate for a state historical marker, which is usually for a building or event.


“The park already has a historic marker. I think there’s a lot to be considered,” she said. “My recommendation is it not be approved at this time, and that we further vet the subject matter and work with H’COLA to come to a resolution.”


Commissioner Anita Grove, who earlier had been sworn in to a second term, said placement of a marker must be considered. “I think we need to think about the park as a whole and not have two signs next to each other.”


Donna Duncan, who took the oath for her first term in office prior to the meeting. said she supported “the recognition and education towards Moses Roper and his history.”


She said she had known of Roper, but had not read his autobiography, which is available online digitally. “I look forward to reading it,” Duncan said.


She asked whether H’COLA would be in charge of disseminating the funds for the marker, and ensuring the project is completed.


Mount-Simmons asked commissioners to direct their business questions not to her, because she did not know, but to “who you know does know. I simply ask you to approve the marker.”


A longtime educator of four decades teaching in the county, and a former columnist for the Times, Mount-Simmons said she was involved in the editing process for the materials for the exhibit. “I don’t feel that anyone has used me in any capacity,” she said. “I really don’t appreciate that comment; however, I understand where you’re coming from.”


Mount-Simmons noted the subject matter was new to her. “I was not aware of Moses Roper myself; I don’t like to read or hear much about slavery,” she said, pointing out her great-grandmother had been a slave.


“I don’t like to know about that, call it ignorance or not, this opened my eyes and I didn’t feel the pain I have always felt when hearing the issues of slavery,” she said.
Augusta West, the director of Main Street who worked with historians and relatives of Roper to create the exhibit, and is leading the effort to have a marker placed here as one of a series of markers proposed along a North Florida trail the fugitive slave took to escape to freedom, then addressed the commission.


She said she hadn’t asked Mount-Simmons, who collaborated on the project, to present on West’s behalf.


West told commissioners the state historical marker commission meets several times a year to review applications. “They consider them on a rolling basis, there’s no hard and fast deadline,” she said.

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