Audrey Munson, the Spectacular Specter of Springfield Park
By Shelton Hull
The ongoing process of racial reckoning that’s been taking place around the country over the past few years has occurred on many different fronts, be it the classroom, the pulpit, or the streets of hundreds of cities from coast to coast. This process has peaked (so far) with the social protests we saw sweeping the nation after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Locally, there were protests here in Jacksonville, St. Augustine, the Beaches, and beyond.
In none of these places was such activity new; indeed, we’ve been fighting these battles here for longer than any of us have been alive. Modern technology has made it easier to organize protests, to network protesters, and to elucidate more effectively what it is that is being protested. What began simply as a push against police brutality, redlining, and systemic disparities in health care and higher education has morphed into other realms.
For example, local activists were able to (mostly) sway the public in favor of changing the names of a half-dozen local schools whose namesakes were members of the Confederacy. They also effectively lobbied Lenny Curry to take executive action against the old Confederate statue that stood for years in Hemming Park, while the City Council also assented to changing the park’s name to James Weldon Johnson Park. That all this took place around the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday (August 27, 1960), the most notorious outburst of racist violence in Northeast Florida’s history, is entirely fitting and worthy of celebration.
The subject has now turned to a monument in the urban core, but that process has not gone nearly as smoothly. Over a hundred statues have been taken down in the United States and around the world, just in the past two years, with more falling almost every week. Florida’s Tribute to the Women of the Confederacy, a monument in Springfield Park (formerly Confederate Park) has now been targeted, not because it depicts a Confederate soldier, but because it reflects the role of women in what the monument’s advocates have alternately called the Lost Cause or, more provocatively, the War of Northern Aggression. That is nomenclature at its most nefarious, and of course, folks are triggered by its very existence.
There is no middle ground to be found between the opposing sides of the statue debate. Florida’s Tribute to the Women of the Confederacy was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Ironically, the monument features a Yankee: one Audrey Marie Munson (1891-1996), a prototypical “it girl” and one of the most famous professional models who ever lived. Munson modeled for at least a dozen statues in her native New York City alone, in addition to others all over the country, including in Jacksonville. She was also an actress who starred in four films between 1915 and 1921; all but one has been lost.
Her image appears at least once in the monument—as the statue of the flagbearer on the top. She may also appear as the statue of the mother reading to her children inside of the monument. Designed by Allen George Newman (1875-1940), who crafted dozens of works around the United States between 1905 and 1932, the monument was built by McNeel Marble Works, established in Marietta, Georgia in 1892. Almost all their major works were Confederacy-themed, and the monument in Springfield Park was among their last, dedicated on October 26, 1915.
Other works featuring Munson can be found at Harvard and in Connecticut, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Washington D.C., London, and even The Hague. She was one of the world’s most famous women in the first quarter of the 20th century, but it ended badly—very, very badly. First, her landlord murdered his wife in 1919, in hopes of marrying Munson. It had nothing to do with her, but it didn’t matter; she was finished. That was just the beginning. Munson was arrested in 1921 for making a personal appearance at a screening of her first film, Purity, which had been released six years earlier. It was one of the first films ever to feature female nudity; that made her a target, and her defiance didn’t help.