A Department of State panel has agreed to allow a Confederate General statue currently in the U.S. Capitol to call a Florida museum its new home. But, that decision is receiving some pushback.
On Sunday, a new law took effect requesting the Joint Committee of the Library of Congress allow a statue of civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune be placed in National Statuary Hall.
There are already two Florida statues in the hall. One is Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith and the other John Gorrie—often thought to be the father of air conditioning.
Bethune’s statue would replace Smith’s.
To get that change over the finish line during the 2018 legislative session, the Florida legislature directed the Department of State to make sure Smith’s statue got a proper home that was open to the public.
“Part of this process, which will play over the next two years, is to identify an appropriate and publicly accessible location in Florida for the statue of General Smith to be placed,” said Tim Parsons with the Florida Department of State. “Again, this is the scope of our task here today to consider applications for the statue’s future location and for the Statue Location Selection Committee to make a recommendation.”
Parsons chaired a recent meeting of the General Edmund Kirby Smith Statue Location Selection Committee.
Just as he did in 2016 when “The Great Floridians committee” chose Bethune as Smith’s replacement, his role at this meeting was to tally up the votes for the “Smith Location Selection Committee.”
With 259 votes, the Lake County Historical Society and Museum won the right to relocate Smith’s statue. But, first, Bob Grenier—the museum’s curator—had to make a presentation to sway the committee.
He says the museum is in a prime location—the city of Tavares, which is near the Orlando metropolitan area.
“Whatever it costs, we are prepared and committed to bringing General Edmund Kirby Smith’s story to Florida, and again, even though, we’re so beautifully centered in the state, it is for all of Florida to share and that’s what we are trying to do,” said Grenier.
Steve Birtman—who’s on the committee—asked Grenier if Smith’s history would be an issue. But, Grenier wasn’t fazed.
“You know, the civil war was a very dark period in our history…so, how do you tell a balanced story,” Birtman asked. “How do you talk about the good and the bad?”
“Our part of the job as a museum is to educate,” Grenier replied. “Whether it’s good or bad, history is what it is. Whatever feelings people have whether they’re negative feelings or positive feelings, whether it’s hate or racism or heroism or courage, all of the things that come from us as individuals, deep within side of us.”
Grenier says he not only got the backing of all five Lake County commissioners to do this, he also got the support of William Proctor, the chancellor of Flagler College in St. Augustine—Smith’s birthplace.
But, not everyone from St. Augustine agrees with Lake County winning the bid.
Tom Graham is the Historic St. Augustine Research Institute Coordinator for Flagler College. He’s also a member of the Confederate Monument Contextualization Advisory Committee in St. Augustine. Graham had hoped his city could win the bid.
Still, Graham acknowledged right now, city commissioners in that area are remaining neutral on the issue since they’re dealing with another issue:
“What to do about with the Confederate Memorial in our plaza in St. Augustine, which has been the focus of a number of protests and marches over the last several months,” he said. “So, there has been a good bit of emotional discussion on this issue in St. Augustine.”
But, others don’t even want Smith’s statue removed from the U.S. Capitol. That includes Kelly Crocker with the Florida Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He says he understands the good intentions behind those who petitioned to have the statue brought to their Florida location.
“And, I’m sure that they mean well, but I don’t believe our state property—General Smith’s statue—should be sold to the highest bidder,” said Crocker. “Just because somebody can pay the transportation cost is not a reason to put them in their city or county.”
But, if Smith’s effigy must go, Crocker prefers it go to Florida’s Capital City.
“So, our fallback position is that he be on display at the old Capitol here in Tallahassee or the new Capitol in the rotunda would be nice,” he added. “Capitol to Capitol.”
Since the panel agreed on the Lake County Historical Society and Museum as the Smith statue’s new location, a written request will now be sent to Washington D.C., with the Joint Library of Congress giving the final say. If all goes as planned, the statue removal and Bethune’s likeness replacing it should be done by 2020.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.