A statue of civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune is getting support in both chambers of the Legislature as a replacement for a Confederate general who has long represented Florida in the U.S. Capitol.
Over the objection of a senator who decried “cultural purging,” the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday voted 18-1 to support a proposal (SB 472 and SCR 184) aimed at replacing the statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in the National Statuary Hall in Washington.
“We’re at a point in our history where we should recognize and embrace the diversity of our state,” former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat who initially pushed to replace the Smith statue, said while addressing the committee.
Bethune, who in 1904 founded what became Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, was president of the National Association of Colored Women, an appointee by President Herbert Hoover to the White House Conference on Child Health and served as an adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt. The university has offered to pay for the statue.
The Legislature voted in 2016 to replace the Smith statue during a nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols in the wake of the 2015 shooting deaths of nine African-American worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
However, lawmakers during the 2017 session did not reach agreement on whose likeness should replace Smith. In advance of the 2018 session, the House is also advancing a measure backing Bethune.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who is the descendant of a Confederate soldier and who has defended the Confederate flag and memorials, said Bethune is worthy of the honor. But Baxley added that he opposed “dishonoring” Smith.
“Regrettably, I can’t vote for this because I think it’s supporting a continuation of cultural purging and dishonoring those who came before us,” Baxley said.
Meanwhile, several supporters of Smith said Wednesday the 2016 legislation isn’t “set in stone” and lawmakers should reconsider the decision.
“Smith fought for what he believed,” said Barbara Hemingway, of American First Team Manatee. “By removing our artifacts and historical statues it only closes the conversation about what history teaches us. Those lessons are valuable to define ourselves and to help improve on them.”
The West Point-educated Smith was born in St. Augustine but had few ties to the state as an adult. After surrendering and taking an oath of loyalty so he could return from Cuba, Smith spent his remaining years as an educator in Tennessee.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville who described Bethune as an “awesome woman,” rejected arguments that the change destroys history.
“Cultural purging is a war term,” Gibson said. “We’re not at war here. We’re here to talk about what’s already been done actually — taking down one statue of a great American and replacing that with another great American. I don’t see anything about permanency.”
Democrats’ demands for a replacement grew this summer in the wake of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned deadly. A plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee helped spur the Charlottesville rally.
Florida State University student Cynthia Colas said statues such as the Smith statue represent those who fought for inequality and stand as a “slap in the face” to many African-Americans like herself.
“We must cease and desist from honoring those who fought for minority enslavement and segregation,” Colas told the committee.
During the 2017 session, the Senate advanced a measure in support of Bethune. But there was no House version. Instead, a bill was proposed in the House for the honor to go to Everglades activist and writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
A panel known as the Great Floridians Committee last year nominated three possible candidates to replace Smith. In addition to Bethune and Douglas, the other nominee was George Washington Jenkins Jr., founder of Lakeland-based Publix supermarket chain.
Each state gets two representatives at the statuary hall, and Smith has represented Florida since 1922.
Florida’s other representative in the hall is John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who voted against the removal of the Smith statue in 2016, supported the Bethune proposal on Wednesday. But she said she might propose legislation to replace Gorrie with Jenkins and to establish a home in Florida for Smith’s statue.
“I want to make sure that we take the statues, who were there representing the state of Florida, and honorably put them in another place so that they can be enjoyed as a landmark, an ancient landmark for the history of the state of Florida,” Stargel said.
The measures advanced Tuesday, a bill and resolution, must now go through the Rules Committee to reach the Senate floor during the 2018 session, which starts in January.
In the House, the Government Accountability Committee has overwhelmingly supported its version of the statue replacement. The measure (HB 139) must get through the House Appropriations Committee before going before the full House.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida