Francis Eppes Statue to Remain Outside the Wescott Building
With an overwhelming majority of 71.7%, Florida State Univsersity students voted to keep the statue and name of Francis Eppes outside of Eppes Hall. The man in question, Francis Eppes, was Thomas Jefferson’s grandson. Eppes was a commodity cotton crop owner with a deep interest in education. He spent most of his time serving as mayor, as a justice of the peace, or as Deputy at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, while his crop was maintained, according to his Wikipedia page, “by the use of extensive slave labor.” He is widely considered to be the founder of FSU because he founded State Seminary West of the Suwannee River in 1857, which went on to become Florida State.
The ballot was a single question: “We, the students of Florida State University, do not believe in honoring slave owners and those that enforced slavery. Therefore, we demand President John Thrasher, and the FSU Board of Trustees, remove the Francis Eppes Monument in front of the Westcott Building and rename Eppes Hall to remove Francis Eppes’ name. Do you agree? Yes or No[.]”
Despite the ruling, the Students for a Democratic Society vow not to give up the fight. Both the debate and forthcoming protests raise important questions about our relationship to and handling of history. The first of which is can we, the present, cleanse the past by denying its existence? This begs the next and equally important question, is this what the SDS is attempting to do?
We, the present, may have one of two polar relationships to the past: we can attempt to purge history of its moral flaws or we can idolize it. The best solution is middle ground: acknowledge the mistakes of the past without denying their existence or the good that coexisted with the bad. This sounds nice on paper, but is harder to apply in reality. What specifically constitutes as denial of the past and what must be done to take responsibility for them?
The Francis Eppes Monument controversy forces us to ask ourselves if we view slavery as an unforgivable sin. Additionally, each student must ask his or herself what role Florida State University plays in rectifying the past. Certainly, FSU owes its existence to Francis Eppes, regardless of his moral character. Does such debt require that we commemorate him somehow, or does the moral atrocity of his owning slaves supersede any monetary debt our institution owes him? These questions cannot be answered by a vote or a protest. These are the fundamental questions of past-present relationships that we must navigate each day as citizens of the United States.
But still, the passion of the voters on both sides of the issue demands satisfaction. What can be done to ease the tension of Eppes-gate? I propose a two-fold solution. In the first place, regardless of whether or not Eppes ultimately stays, he did found what has become a vibrant, diverse, and thriving university. Francis Eppes’ questionable morals afford this institution and its students an invaluable opportunity to discuss the seemingly contradictory actions of its founder. Therefore, I propose that we commission a plaque to be put somewhere in the vicinity of Eppes Hall and the statue of Francis Eppes discussing his controversial past, condemning his ownership of fellow humans, and acknowledging his contribution to Florida State.
In the second place and for the purpose of easing tensions, I suggest we follow in the footsteps of The College of William and Mary, whose campus is adorned with many statues of founding fathers, old Virginian delegates, and other controversial, historical figures. At any given time—in good fun or in protest—a passerby may see these statues decorated in Mardi Gras beads, party hats, school colors, clothes, or post-it notes. This venue for expression, humor, and protest has served a purpose at William and Mary and I see no reason why it would not serve the same need in Tallahassee. At present, the 71.7% majority stands and the statue remains. We might as well have some fun together, as fellow Seminoles, in spite of our disagreements about handling the past.
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