On Tuesday night, the Union League honored Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with the club’s highest honor.
On Tuesday afternoon, Philadelphians from all walks of life let them know they were displeased about it.
ABOVE PHOTO: Union League protest organizer Melissa Robbins speaks at the podium surrounded by crowds which included Phila. NAACP Branch president Catherine Hicks, Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, Kenyatta Johnson, past Councilmember Derek Green, State Sen. Sharif Street and Keir Bradford-Grey, Esq. (Photos by Solomon Williams)
By Denise Clay-Murray
In 1863, the Union League of Philadelphia gave its first Gold Medal to former President Abraham Lincoln, the president credited with emancipating the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation and, ultimately, with winning the Civil War.
So, you’ll have to forgive the public officials, community organizers and civil rights activists who gathered at the Union League on Tuesday to protest the award’s latest recipient, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for being a little confused.
Especially since DeSantis’s recent legal actions would indicate that he and Lincoln wouldn’t have agreed on much, said Melissa Robbins, one of the protest’s organizers.
“Abraham Lincoln’s name rings throughout history as a president who promoted the emancipation of Black people, which is a complete contradiction of Governor DeSantis’s ideology,” she said.
On Tuesday afternoon, protestors gathered in front of the organization’s South Philadelphia clubhouse to protest the sold-out Gold Medal ceremony that was happening later that night. Groups including the Philadelphia NAACP, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, the National Action Network, and Northeast Against Racism demanding the Union League reverse course.
DeSantis, who is being touted by many as a possible Republican candidate for president in 2024, is best known for his support of laws that restrict the teaching of such things as African American history in Florida’s schools and for using Florida’s taxpayer dollars to ship unsuspecting immigrants from Texas to places like Martha’s Vineyard and Philadelphia just because he can.
Those two things should have made him a non-starter for any honor that once went to Abraham Lincoln, said the Rev. William Moore, a member of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia.
“The Union League can invite whom it wishes, and give an award to whomever it chooses,” Rev. Moore said. “We recognize that, and we respect it. Our opposition is to what Governor DeSantis has done in his own state. It’s troubling.”
As the father of two sons, and the councilperson representing the district where the Union League is located, City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson (D-2nd Dist.) was angry for a couple of reasons, he said.
First, he was angry that there appears to be a growing national movement to whitewash the history and contributions of Black Americans.
But secondly, he was angry with the apparent tone deafness of the Union League, Johnson said.
“Let me tell you what’s really unsettling about this particular situation,” he said. “There’s a leadership table that runs this Union League. They’re well aware of whom they’ve given this award to. We’ll be putting the Union League on notice that moving forward, anytime you disrespect Black people here in the City of Philadelphia, we will be organizing and calling you on the carpet.”
That anger over the tone deafness of giving the award to DeSantis wasn’t restricted to those outside the organization. When it was announced in September, more than 100 members signed on to a five-page letter that told club leaders that presenting this award to DeSantis would impact the club’s reputation and might be perceived as an endorsement of the Florida governor should he make a presidential run.
Many at the protest called on these members to put their money where their mouths were by leaving the club and taking their dues with them.
According to the Union League’s website, to become a member, you must first find someone to “propose” that you become a member. You must then attend a potential members reception, create a membership proposal for yourself, find six people to write a letter of recommendation for you, get through an interview, and pay your dues.
The initiation fee for active members is $7,500 and yearly dues are $6,700. There are discounts if you’re a member of the military, a member of the clergy, a senior citizen, or a junior member.
And it’s all money that could go to an organization or club that doesn’t honor people with no respect for the African American community, said the Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
“We want to raise notice that if you want to hold on to a membership with them, and if you want to do business with them, that is going to cause a problem with us,” he said.
Councilmember Sharon Vaughn (At-Large), who introduced a resolution in City Council on Thursday condemning the Union League’s actions, was more direct.
“We need to pull back their nonprofit status,” she said. “They need not to benefit from anything that Philadelphia has to offer. We need to make them feel it where it hurts them the most, in their pockets. We need them to know that we will not stand for this nonsense. If you come into Philadelphia and act crazy, we’ll meet you with the same energy.”
Prior to taking to the streets, the NAACP and others reached out to the Union League to share their objections and try to work something out, said Catherine Hicks, president of the NAACP Philadelphia Branch.
They’re still waiting for a response, she said.
“Let’s make it clear,” Hicks said. “We did reach out to speak to those in the leadership to voice our opinion. But we’ve received silence. We were not given a call back. So that’s why we’re out here today.”
The SUN also reached out to the Union League, but hadn’t received a response as of press time.
Despite its origins as a place whose initial mission was to try to recruit Blacks into the Civil War as a means of holding the union together, the Union League didn’t admit its first Black member — Thaddeus Coleman Jr., former President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Transportation — until 1972, according to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Women weren’t able to become members until 1986.
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