Apalachicola OKs Roper historic marker

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Apalachicola will be getting a historical marker to honor the legacy of Moses Roper, a leading 19th century abolitionist and former fugitive slave who authored a best-selling narrative that included description of his experiences while serving as a steward on a steamboat plying the Apalachicola River.

The 4-1 vote by city commissioners, with Despina George opposed, came a little more than a month after an exhibit on Roper was unveiled at the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and Arts. The HCA has been closed for much of that time, and the exhibit unavailable to the public, after the recently hired part-time executive director left for a full-time job, and nearly all the members of the HCA board of directors resigned from their posts.

The creation of a historical marker had been championed by Augusta West, director of Main Street Apalachicola, as well as by Elinor Mount-Simmons, who reviewed the historic materials on behalf of H’COLA (Hillside Coalition of Laborers for Apalachicola).

In support of the exhibit, West presented several letters of support for the marker by leading scholars of Roper’s life, as well as his descendants. A petition of several hundred names, in support of the marker, included the names of about 75 Apalachicola residents.

From the outset of the meeting, Mayor Brenda Ash emerged as a strong proponent of the marker.

“I applaud Main Street with the work they’ve done,” she said. “I applaud all those who have diligently worked to bring this project to the area.

“One of the things that really bothers me, to say that in (Riverfront Park) there’s not room for a second marker,” she said.

In an appeal to city commissioners prior to the meeting, West stressed that the marker had been mentioned in the original grant application to the Duke Energy Foundation, which awarded the exhibit $10,000. She also noted that the marker’s backers would move forward with placing the marker in downtown Apalachicola along the river, even if it were not granted space at Riverfront Park.

In the motion to approve the marker, there was no specific mention of where it might be placed nor of what entity would oversee the placement.

“The more I research, I find it’s a wonderful story,” said George. “The tie to Apalachicola is rather tenuous. I don’t think it’s a proper subject for a historic marker ibn spite of the importance of the content.”

George, a longstanding critic of Main Street, said that the exhibit and marker had been “rolled out as a complete project (which was) just being brought to the public’s attention,” and question whether the project could be considered “something for established history in a community that has wide community support.”

She also stressed that the city currently has two historic markers slated to highlight African-American history, including one in production for St. Paul AME Church, which includes mention of Emmanuel Smith, whose life and contributions to Apalachicola are well-documented.

George also expressed an apology to Mount-Simmons, who had spoken in favor of the marker at last month’s meeting. The city commissioner had suggested that Main Street, which has been the prominent backer of the exhibit, had put Mount-Simmons front and center, rather than have to face tough questions on the non-profit’s relationship with the city.

“I want to apologize to Elinor Mount-Simmons if she feels I’ve attacked her character,” said George. “That’s the furthest thing from my mind.”

In her second to Anita Grove’s motion to approve the marker, Adriane Elliott offered questions of West regarding funding of the exhibit.

West said Duke Energy had granted the project $10,000 for both the exhibit and the marker, with another $5,000 coming from Florida Humanities, $2,000 from Weems Memorial Hospital, and $600 to $800 from several individuals.

West said the budget for the project includes $350 for installation, with the cost of a double-sided historical marker a little less than $2,500.

“Are we somehow profiting from a grant for this marker? The answer is no,” she said. “I’ve put in almost $1,000 personally I do not expect to be ever reimbursed for. It is not a project anybody is making money off of from grant-funding agencies.”

West also made a point of decrying wording on the existing marker at Riverfront Park which includes mention of the phrase “Cotton is king.” That phrase originated with James Hammond, a  Southern plantation owner, and U.S. senator who extolled Southern power in the area leading up to the Civil War.

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