Philadelphia Councilembers Jamie Gautier, and Kenyatta Johnson, and mayoral candidate Derek Green joined the President of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, Rev. Robert Collier, outside the Union League to denounce bestowing the Abraham Lincoln Award on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Critics who describe Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a racist protested Tuesday outside the Union League, which is awarding him a medal once presented to President Abraham Lincoln.

Rev. Alvyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church said the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP and others feel compelled to address the Union League’s decision to go ahead with the event, which was postponed after outcry when it was announced last fall.

“This specific award, the Abraham Lincoln award, being given to Ron DeSantis, in a city that is 44% African American, is just a smack in our face,” Waller said. “Ron DeSantis, in more than a few ways, has shown not just his political ideology and his right leaning, but that he is a racist that denies the humanity of black people.”

Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Kenyatta Johnson, Sharon Vaughn, and mayoral candidate Derek Green joined the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, Black Women’s Leadership Council, Philadelphia NOW, and the National Action Network, at a noon press conference outside the Union League’s South Broad Street building.

They called for Philadelphians to attend a protest in advance of the dinner honoring the Florida governor at the storied private club.

“We really would like hundreds of people, if not thousands,” Waller told Billy Penn. “I am hoping that when I get down there I run into a traffic jam, and I am hoping to run into problems parking, and that this calls attention to this travesty.”

As 5 p.m. approached protesters filled the sidewalks around the building, holding signs and shouting “Shame!” at people who entered.

The Union League’s decision to give DeSantis the medal even after months of criticism and internal deliberations shows the organization is “intentionally sending a message to the community” about what it believes, and demands a response from critics, he said.

The award is particularly disappointing because the Union League has taken positive steps in recent years, Councilmember Gilmore Richardson said, such as unveiling a portrait of Frederick Douglass, hosting events with cultural organizations, and increasing the diversity of its members.

“They are doing a disservice to these same communities by honoring and uplifting someone who seeks to erase Black history in addition to everything else he’s done,” Gilmore Richardson said.

She urged councilmembers and other supporters of diversity to call on the club to cancel the event. Councilmember Vaughn said she would introduce a formal resolution to denounce the league, according to The Inquirer.

The 159-year-old institution is a social club for monied Philadelphians, especially lawyers and politicos. It was established to support Lincoln and the Union effort as the Civil War expanded.

The club has awarded the medal to a number of prominent conservative figures, including President George W. Bush, Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions, and Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Pamela McDonald, a Center City resident, denounced Ron DeSantis receiving the Abraham Lincoln award from the Philadelphia Union League Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Several Union League members reportedly protested the decision to give DeSantis the award, saying it should not be endorsing his expected presidential candidacy without polling members first.

In October a 107-member group called the Concerned Members of the Union League wrote a letter to then-club president Craig Mills saying the DeSantis event “poses outsized immediate and long-term reputational risk to the Union League,” The Inquirer reported.

Union League officials reportedly responded by threatening to oust members who spoke publicly about the event.

In decrying the decision to honor the Florida governor, Enon Tabernacle’s Waller cited DeSantis’s recent move to ban a proposed Advance Placement African American History course from being taught in Florida schools because of topics like the Movement for Black Lives, Black feminism and reparations.

The reverend also criticized Florida’s failure to prosecute white Republicans who voted twice for Donald Trump despite having arrested Black ex-felons who were arrested for voting after being given voter registration cards.

Among other actions, DeSantis also bullied transgender children and their parents by passing anti-trans legislation, and tried to punish Walt Disney World for speaking out against the law, Waller and others note.

“We’re standing up for all minorities that are being attacked by this particular man,” Waller said. “A signal must be sent that that’s not gonna fly here in Philadelphia.”

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Meir Rinde

Meir Rinde is a freelance reporter based in South Philadelphia. He writes about housing, infrastructure, transportation, local businesses, elections, science history, health and medicine, community issues,...