Submitted by Anne H. Oman
May 12, 2014 5:37 p.m.
Down Ash Street and up Centre Street streamed the annual Shrimp Fest Pirate Parade: Black-hatted buccaneers with the requisite eye patches, grizzled shrimpers skippering boats on wheels, sequin-tailed mermaids, marching bands, beauty queens, city officials, karate kids, a nursery school wearing hats the children had made. But — wait a minute – who’s that black-clad guy behind the Confederate soldiers who’s cracking two bull whips? And why is that pirate lookalike aiming guns at children and shooting smoke into their faces?
Some spectators expressed shock and distress at the inclusion of these two people in the parade.
In a Letter to the Editor of the News-Leader, Fernandina Beach resident Louryne Spaulding wrote that “part of history was the beating of slaves with the use of whips. I believe it was not intended to be offensive but people of color may have interpreted the cracking of the whips as degrading and a wicked period of time in our history.”
Kate Hart, the director of Miss Kate’s Pre-K, whose pupils marched in the parade, wrote in another Letter to the Editor: “Unbelievably, two individuals marching in the parade were brandishing weapons: one was aiming a gun into children’s faces and firing smoke at them, and the other was flicking a bullwhip. Really? How are these actions related to shrimping? How was this allowed to happen?”
*In a telephone interview, Ms. Hart added that one of her nursery school mothers complained that a gun-toting pirate “shot right in my son’s face.”
Other local residents expressed outrage on Facebook about the man with the whips, raising the specters of the Ku Klux Klan and of Bull Connor, who turned fire hoses and dogs on civil rights workers in the 1960s.
Fernandina Beach Mayor Ed Boner, who rode in the parade but did not see the offending participants, said in a telephone interview that “the pointing of guns at people is a really bad idea.”
“We are a diverse community,” he added. “We don’t like to offend anyone. We need to make judgment calls.”
Wayne Peterson, an African-American Fernandina resident who saw the parade, said he had talked to several city commissioners about the whip wielder and “they are aware of my concerns and said they would take care of the problem.”
He would not say which commissioners he had contacted, but referred a reporter to Patricia Thompson, a former Fernandina Beach City Commissioner and Vice Mayor and a former NAACP chapter president.
Ms. Thompson called the whip display “so insensitive.”
“Anytime you do any injustice to any specific race, it’s an injustice to everyone,” she added. “We work hard to reduce racial tension – we don’t want to go backwards.”
Mark Deaton, who served as overall Festival Chairman this year said that “honestly I did not notice this float as I was quite busy with technical production during the parade.”
“I can say with some certainty that neither the committee nor the city administration pre-approved this activity, and I regret it slipped by us,” he added.
Similarly, Billie Childers, who chaired the parade, said she was not aware of the whip and would not have permitted it.
“The fact was not listed in the Sons of Confederate Veterans parade application, nor did I see him during the lineup. They did have special permission to fire once in front of the judge’s stand,” she said. “I will inform them that the whip will not be allowed in the future. I certainly don’t want to offend anyone attending the parade.”
The official parade rules state that “all parade entries are required to commemorate the shrimping industry by adhering to the Pirate Parade theme which is ‘Home of the Shrimpers’” and that “inappropriate conduct is basis for automatic disqualification and removal from the parade…This will include, but is not limited to, endangering or the potential of endangering anyone along the parade route or non-compliance to the parade guidelines…”
No attempts were made to remove anyone from the parade.
The black-clad man marched as part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans contingent of gray-uniformed soldiers carrying Confederate flags and antique rifles. Bob Sieg of that organization identified the mystery man as “Doc Gibson.”
When told that the bull whips were interpreted by some as an offensive reference to slaves being beaten, Mr. Sieg denied that any reference to slavery was intended.
“Give me a break!” he protested. “Doc Gibson is a minister!”
He said that the whips were meant to represent whips used to round up stray cattle to provide meat for Confederate soldiers.
“Florida was the breadbasket of the Confederacy,” he explained. “They cracked whips to capture the cattle – that’s where the term ‘cracker’ comes from…. . We’re neither a racial nor a political group. We just want to keep our heritage and our history alive. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery – it was about states’ rights.”
Mr. Gibson, reached by phone, said that he was dressed as “a Florida cracker – part of the cow cavalry that supplied cattle to the troops.
They weren’t out there whipping slaves. There is no slavery issue here.”
He added that he had marched as a cracker in a University of Florida parade, and decided to bring his whips with him to Fernandina.
“My great-grandfather fought in the Civil War from Texas,” he said. “He was too poor to own a horse – no less a slave. He fought for states’ rights – not slavery.”
The identity of the smoke-shooting pirate could not be ascertained by press time.
Raymond Arsenault, a former Fernandina Beach resident who is now John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and Politics at the University of South Florida, said that “the unfortunate intrusion of whips and firearms into the annual Shrimp Fest Pirate Parade represents a misuse of history by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.” He called the claim that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery “patently absurd” and suggested that the “group should spend more time doing research in the public library and less time out on the streets scaring children and evoking mythic and misleading images of a tortured past.”
* N.B. Since this article was published, two parents have indicated that the people shooting the smoke guns were dressed not as pirates but as Confederate soldiers. We are investigating and will report back when we have more information.
Editor’s Note: Anne H. Oman relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications. We thank Anne for her contributions to the Fernandina Observer.