11:57 PM EDT June 12, 2023

‘He had to be remembered:’ Jacksonville group replaces bench stolen from Willow Branch Park; honors life lost in Pulse nightclub shooting

A locally made sculpture, called Prevail, is dedicated to victims of hate crimes.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Seven years ago, 49 people lost their lives in a 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in downtown Orlando. One of the victims lived in Jacksonville but the AIDS Memorial Project of Northeast Florida is remembering all who lost their lives at Willow branch Park, where Pride began more than 40 years ago in Jacksonville.

The organization is doing a number of revitalization projects. It unveiled a replacement bench Monday for one that was stolen two years ago. The whereabouts of the original bench are not known, but this one is dedicated to Darryl Roman Burt II, who was killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting seven years ago. He lived in Jacksonville at the time.

“We had to replace the banks the bench because he had to be remembered,” AIDS Memorial Project of Northeast Florida Vice President Dan Hutton said.

The AIDS Memorial Project of Northeast Florida is not just remembering one life lost, Vice President Dan Hutton says it is remembering all lives lost.

“There were there are 49 people who passed one of them lived here, but that those people are not going to be forgotten and that we’re not going to ever lose their memory,” Hutton said.

A locally made sculpture, called Prevail, is dedicated to victims of hate crimes. Its artist, Mary Joan Hinson says it will live behind the bench once constructed in a few years.

“It is very dark. You’ll have cast iron hands coming up, reaching up for liberation to the piece on the right to show the liberators of the hate. In the middle, you see Michelangelo’s touch of creation from the end wall of the Sistine Chapel. That’s where the gold is. That’s the gift of life that we’re giving the people that have been victimized by hate crimes,” Brush and Oil artist Mary Joan Hinson said.

The organization is also revitalizing the park by adding more trees and flowers, calling it ‘love grove’ to remember loved ones lost to AIDS related illnesses.

“Each of the trees out here is dedicated a memory of somebody who has been lost. We’re replacing them but replacing them with trees of loved ones,” Hutton said.

Willow branch Park is where Jacksonville’s first gay pride festival was held more than 40 years ago.

“I hope that everybody on this seventh anniversary takes a moment to remember that there were people who were just trying to dance, and that’s all they wanted to do. They were lost doing that and that it’s important for us to remember that people were just being themselves and just having a good time. They didn’t deserve that,” Hutton said.

The organization says it plans to plant even more trees, flowers and install more benches in the future. A plaque will be put on the bench. It is bolted into concrete and the organization says it’s not going anywhere.