A proposal to remove a statue of a Confederate general born in Florida from the U.S. Capitol was unanimously approved Wednesday by a state legislative subcommittee, as Florida and other states continue to grapple with the legacy of the Civil War.
The House Economic Development and Tourism Subcommittee approved the proposal (HB 141) on a 9-0 vote, the first step for a bill that could replace a likeness of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. The collection includes two statues from each state.
The effort to remove Smith’s statue from the hall comes amid a backlash against symbols of the Confederacy after a man with white supremacist views was accused of killing nine African-American worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C, in June. The Florida Senate voted last month to remove the Confederate flag from its official seal.
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican sponsoring the bill approved Wednesday, said Florida has changed since the statue of Smith was first placed in the Capitol.
“Edmund Kirby Smith was a general of the Confederacy, but that’s not why I’m filing this bill,” Diaz said. “Instead, I filed this bill because I think since 1922, our state has many other stories which need to be reviewed and celebrated which are equally as important and worthy of retelling.”
The proposal would not affect a statue of John Gorrie, a physician and inventor who is considered the father of air conditioning, which paved the way for much of Florida’s population boom in the 20th Century.
The treatment of reminders of the Civil War remains a racially and politically charged issue in the South. While many Southerners view the monuments as recognition of their ancestors’ military service and sacrifice, blacks and others often see an endorsement of the brutal, slave-driven economy that was a central issue in the conflict, which raged from 1860 to 1865 and remains America’s deadliest war.
Seber Newsome III, from Yulee, told the House subcommittee Wednesday that he viewed the effort to remove Smith’s statue along with the Senate’s decision on its seal and another bill to bar government displays of the Confederate flag as part of “a knee-jerk reaction” to the Charleston massacre.
“This is a blatant attempt to erase Southern history and heritage by taking advantage of a terrible situation,” Newsome said. “Statues are not put into the hall to be removed whenever a group of people are consumed with trying to erase history.”
Under the bill, the replacement for Smith would be nominated by a committee responsible for selecting recipients of the Great Floridian award. The Florida Department of State would submit a report to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2017, including the name of the nominee, the sculptor and the estimated cost of replacing Smith’s likeness.
Lynette Long, president of Equal Visibility Everywhere, said the state should use the opportunity to select a woman — naming educator Mary McLeod Bethune, anti-slavery author Harriet Beecher Stowe, Seminole chief Betty Mae Tiger Jumper and environmental activist and writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas as possibilities.
Though the bill doesn’t specifically address the fate of the Smith statute, Diaz said it would have to be located in a place of honor. He suggested a similar memorial to one at Smith’s childhood home in St. Augustine.
There, Smith is portrayed embracing Alexander Darnes, one of his slaves and Smith’s valet during the war. After Darnes was freed, Diaz said, Smith’s family paid for the former slave to attend medical school at Howard University. Darnes became the second African-American physician in Florida.