PHILADELPHIA—The Union League of Philadelphia—a private, celebrated conservative, and majority-White institution among those in power and influence across the “City of Brotherly Love”— recently awarded its highest honor to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The Union League’s decision to honor the Republican governor sparked a backlash from some of its members and also the city’s Black residents. 

On Jan. 24, a collective of civic leaders united at the “Fight Against Anti-Blackness” press conference to protest the award, including organizations such as the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, NAACP Philadelphia branch, Black Women’s Leadership Council, Northeast Against Racism, Philadelphia National Organization for Women (NOW), Black Voters Matter Fund, and National Action Network, along with members of the city council. 

Gov. DeSantis received the club’s prestigious “Thomas Jefferson Gold Medal Award” which was first awarded to President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Leaders argued that presenting such an award to the Mr. DeSantis—who handily won a second term—is insensitive.

“This specific award, the Abraham Lincoln award, being given to Ron DeSantis, in a city that is 44 percent African American, is just a smack in our face,” Rev. Alvyn Waller, head of the progressive Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, said during a media conference held in front of the Union League of Philadelphia building in City Center on Jan. 24, ahead of the banquet held later that evening.  


“Ron DeSantis, in more than a few ways, has shown … that he is a racist that denies the humanity of Black people,” he said. 

According to a press release by the community groups, part of their objections to the governor being awarded include in part:

• DeSantis banned a new advanced African American History course from being taught in Florida Schools.  DeSantis said it “lacks educational value and is contrary to Florida Law.”  

• He continued his anti-Black tirade and threatened the National Hockey League (NHL) because the league attempted to recruit more minority players. His threats caused the NHL to back away from their recruitment efforts.

• He declared war on “ wokeness” which he has trouble defining but appears to him to be anything that uplifts and supports the Black community.

• He failed to prosecute and treat differently the White Republican voters who knowingly committed fraud by twice voting for Donald Trump in the Villages but arrested Black ex-felons who thought their rights were restored and were given voter registration cards by Florida officials.

Despite repeated efforts from the community coalition, attempts to address the matter with club leadership went unanswered. 

The award has also faced resistance from within the league, with some members threatening to resign if the award is not rescinded, according to local ABC affiliate WPVI, reported Newsweek. More than 100 Black members of the club reportedly voiced opposition to welcoming Gov. DeSantis, reported  

During the news conference, Dr. Kelly Harris shared his insights by referencing a January 1894 speech by former slave, turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In his last major speech in 1894 titled, “The Lessons of the Hour,” Mr. Douglass laid out his view on race and class divisions.   

“Frederick Douglass said in that speech, put away your race prejudice; banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize that the rights of the humblest citizens are as worthy as the highest. Amen,” said Dr. Harris, a professor and scholar in Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“And if you do that, whatever may be in store for the future of this country, whether it be prosperity or adversity, peace or war, if it is based on the internal principles of truth, justice, and humanity, then this republic will stand and flourish forever,” added Dr. Harris. 

Frederick Douglass’ timeless words of true democracy have been overlooked for over a century and a half by White Americans. The presentation of the Thomas Jefferson Gold Medal Award to Gov. DeSantis is yet another sad reminder from those in power that equality for people of color is not on the agenda, critics argued. 

Over the years, many prominent figures such as two U.S presidents from different generations, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush;   leading politicians like former Vice-President Dick Cheney, the late Senator John McCain, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge; Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito have all been awarded the prestigious gold medal honor by the Union League of Philadelphia.

“You don’t want this smoke of people coming together against you. You don’t want this smoke of Black voters voting against you. You don’t want this smoke of people realizing what is happening in our community. We’ve been saying it’s a Philly thing, and Philadelphia is full of love, but you ain’t seeing love like this. We’re coming together across racial lines. We are coming together across political lines. We come together across religious lines because we want to see things change. And it begins right now,” Rev. Waller warned the Union League regarding its actions.

This coalition encouraged non-profits, businesses, and government entities to stand in solidarity by refraining from hosting any events at the club’s facilities. As part of this effort, letters are being sent to corporate sponsors requesting that they withdraw their financial support. 

Despite the backlash, enthusiasm for the event was at an all-time high, evidenced by 200 members and their guests reserving tickets in 15 minutes! Former Union League President Craig Mills stated in a letter that the resounding approval of this award is indicative of overwhelming support from across the membership base.

Established in 1862, the Union League, a private club, embodied its dedication to President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party by supporting Civil War efforts. Staying true to this allegiance over time, it remained largely a bastion of traditional old-boy conservatism until 1974 when William T Coleman Jr. managed what was then an incredibly rare achievement: becoming the first Black member. Twelve years later, history repeated itself with women being welcomed as members. The so-called prestigious institution has long been associated with plush elitism and affluent Republicanism.

Student Minister Rodney Muhammad, head of Mosque No. 12 and the Delaware Valley Region of the Nation of Islam, was a part of the news conference representing Philadelphia’s Muslim community. He told The Final Call Mr. DeSantis did not come to the city of his own accord and noted the governor’s reported presidential ambitions and the importance of Pennsylvania to his bid. 

“I remember the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan saying we were going to continue to receive insult after insult from White America, and this would be a direct refusal of our heeding the warnings that have been given to us about what is upon America,” said Student Min. Rodney Muhammad. “

“And what’s coming upon America, it just seems that Black America is not hearing his voice,” he added. Final Call staff contributed to this report.