Does David Levy Yulee Deserve a Statue?

The Fernandina Beach founder will be immortalized in bronze, but some say his slave-built railroad makes him unworthy of the honor


In a studio near Boston, sculptor Susan Luery is 
 trying to capture in clay the right expression and features of David Levy Yulee some 126 years after his death.

More than 1,000 miles away in Fernandina Beach, members of the Amelia Island- Fernandina Restoration Foundation are awaiting completion of Luery's bronze statue, which will sit on a bench outside the town's historic train depot that is undergoing a $300,000 renovation. The statue will cost about $50,000.

Adam Kaufman, president of the foundation, knows some residents of this coastal community are opposed to honoring Yulee because of his past as a plantation owner and slave owner and his sympathies with the Confederacy, but he points out that many American historical figures, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, owned slaves.

"He was a man of his times," Kaufman said, and quite a "mover and shaker" in his adopted state of Florida. "He created this county."

Yulee started the Florida Railroad Company and has been called the "Father of Florida Railroads." He was the first Jewish member of the U.S. Senate and was recognized by the state in 2000 as a Great Floridian.

Yulee is credited with platting the coastal town of Fernandina Beach, drawing it to match New York City, including a Central Park. The small Nassau County town of Yulee is named in his honor, as is Levy County, west of Gainesville. Yulee Hall at the University of Florida is named in honor of his wife, and all his papers, 17 linear feet of them, are housed in the UF Library.

But he was a plantation owner and slaveholder who may have used slave labor to help build his railroad spanning from Fernandina Beach on the Atlantic Ocean to Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico.

Toiling away in a workshop without air conditioning is Luery, chosen from a group of six sculptors who submitted proposals. Fernandina-based architect Jose L. Miranda said Luery is noted for her attention to detail and her large sculptures. She has rendered bronze statues of Babe Ruth, placed outside Camden Yard in Baltimore, George Washington in Cumberland, Md., and St. Paul outside St. Paul's Parish in Hingham, Mass.

Luery visited Fernandina Beach in mid-March to learn more about Yulee, the town and the railroad station.

"Everyone I met that is involved in this project has been wonderful and passionate about it," she said.

"It has been a joy developing a character by going into a person's psyche and deciding how to depict them," Luery said in a telephone interview.

Through the Library of Congress, she researched the clothing worn in the 19th century, and used three photographs to determine the three-dimensional depiction of Yulee.

She is finishing up the first stage of the sculpture, creating a one-foot prototype of what will be a six-foot statue.

Luery is aware some have criticized erecting a statue of someone who owned slaves.

"It is what it was. It was the time," she said, noting, "Yulee was no saint."

She said she is depicting Yulee in his mid-40s, about the time he entered the railroad business.

Kaufman said Yulee was quite handsome when he was a young man, but he didn't age well.

"John Quincy Adams said he was the handsomest guy he had seen in his life," 
Luery said.

It may be several months before the sculpture is completed and before it can make it through the foundry for display in front of the train station. She said she was given no firm deadline.

Not everyone in town is in favor of the statue.

In a letter to the Fernandina Beach News Leader, sculptor Chuck Oldham wrote that 
he had been approached about doing the Yulee monument.

While researching Yulee, "I discovered a shocking truth. David Yulee was not only a slave owner, but one of the most ardent proponents and defenders of slavery in his day," Oldham wrote.

Oldham did not return calls from Folio Weekly seeking comment.

In his letter, he quoted University of Florida researcher Maury Wiseman, who wrote, "Yulee's railroad, like much of the South, was built on the back of slave labor. Likewise, his plantations were built and maintained by slaves."

Wiseman is no longer listed on University of Florida's faculty roster; he didn't respond to an email sent to Sacramento City College, where he is listed as being a professor.

"With this knowledge," Oldham wrote. "I not only decided to reject any further involvement, but I was determined to report this misguided idea for a bronze monument in the hope that it will be stopped."

Suanne Thamm, a former trustee for Florida State College at Jacksonville and a writer at the Fernandina Observer, said, "I believe that a couple of folks have expressed unhappiness over the statue, but not the restoration."

The train depot is undergoing a complete renovation and makeover to return to its appearance in 1899, when it opened, said John M. Cotter, a Fernandina Beach architect in charge of the makeover.

The red-brick depot, home to Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, is the town's second depot. The original depot was destroyed by a hurricane in 1898.

Kaufman estimated costs of the renovation and the statue will total about $350,000, money raised from the city and private donations. The city put up $125,000 and the Tourist Development Council ponied up another $125,000; the rest came from Amelia Island-Fernandina Restoration Foundation.

Avondale Window Restoration Co. is working to restore all the windows, taking many of them back to its shop in Jacksonville, removing lead paint from the wooden frames, and replacing the glass with glass from that era, said Bill Evans of the window firm.

Ted R. Richardson, owner of Masonry Plus in Fernandina Beach, is making repairs to the outside walls of the brick structure, stabilizing it as well as fixing grout.

The old depot will receive a coat of paint and new hardwood floors to cover the concrete floors that were added several years ago, Cotter said.

If another $100,000 can be raised, an awning that covered the area between the station and the tracks may be reconstructed.

Yulee chartered the Florida Railroad in 1853, and the first train arrived in Cedar Key on May 1, 1861, just weeks before the start of the Civil War, records show. The Union Army destroyed the stations, bridges and much of the railroad.

Yulee was born on June 12, 1810, at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands He immigrated to the United States when his father, Moses Levy, bought 50,000 acres of land near Jacksonville to establish a "New Jerusalem" for Jewish settlers, according to a University of Florida biography.

After finishing school in Norfolk, Va., Yulee returned to Florida where he studied law in St. Augustine and was admitted to The Florida Bar in 1832. In 1841, he was elected as the delegate from the Florida Territory to the U.S. House of Representatives for four years until Florida was granted statehood in 1845.

He was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1845 and officially changed his name to David Levy Yulee, adding his father's Moroccan Sephardi Jewish surname — some say he did so for political reasons. He lost the 1850 election, but was elected again to the Senate in 1855 and served until Jan. 21, 1861, when Florida seceded from the Union, according to Wiseman's paper.

While in the Senate, Yulee promoted the building of iron ships and improving the postal service, according to the UF biography. He also fought for the expansion of the number of slave states and territories.

He was president of the Florida Railroad Company from 1853 to 1866, and president of the Peninsular Railroad Company, the Tropical Florida Railway Company and the Fernandina and Jacksonville Railroad Company, earning him the sobriquet "the father of Florida's railroads," according to the UF biography. He developed his railroad decades before Henry Flagler built his Florida East Coast Railway to Key West.

After the Civil War, Yulee was imprisoned for treason for nine months in Georgia. He was accused of assisting in the flight of Jefferson Davis' baggage train, which contained Confederate papers and gold. He was later pardoned, according to Wiseman's paper.

At the end of his career, he sold the Florida Railroad to outside investors. He retired to Washington, D.C., and died in October 1886 in New York City.

Around the state, there are markers to Yulee and his railroad legacy. Yulee Railroad Days are celebrated each June in Archer and throughout Alachua County. An annual bicycle tour retraces the route from Cedar Key to Fernandina Beach.

"While different facets of Yulee's life have been promoted, repressed or ignored," Wiseman wrote, "Floridians' memory of him as an important man in their state's history has never faded."

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