The bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, which has stood in the U.S. Capitol since 1922, would be replaced by a statue more representative of Florida, under a bill filed Tuesday by a Republican state lawmaker.
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz said he’s been considering the proposal (HB 141) for several years, and the bill comes as people across the country have reconsidered Confederate symbols after the racially motivated slaying in June of nine black church members in South Carolina.
“I think that the shooting in South Carolina created an awareness that wasn’t there before,” Diaz, who represents parts of Miami-Dade County, said. “When I first started asking questions about Gen. Kirby (Smith), the political appetite wasn’t there for this conversation to be had. People were not intrigued by him or Statuary Hall.”
The Smith statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection is in the Capitol Visitor Center.
The Florida Senate is considering similar legislation, Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in an email.
The proposal follows a call in July by 11 members of Florida’s congressional delegation to remove the Smith statue. Each state is allowed to provide two statues of deceased prominent citizens to be placed in the National Statuary Hall.
Neither Diaz nor the congressional members seek to replace the state’s other statue, a marble likeness of former Apalachicola resident John Gorrie, who is consider the father of air conditioning.
Unlike Gorrie, Diaz said Smith had little impact on the state, which needs someone “more emblematic of what Florida has become.”
“We’ve had a lot of great Floridians come and go in the last 100 years, and for us to have last updated our statues in 1922 made no sense to me,” Diaz said. “Gen. Kirby (Smith) had a limited amount of time here in Florida. By the time he went to West Point, Florida was still four years from becoming a state.”
Under Diaz’ proposal an ad hoc committee of the Great Floridians Program within the state Division of Historical Resources would select “a prominent Florida citizen.” The Florida Council on Arts and Culture would be in charge of hiring and raising the money to pay a sculptor. Diaz said the money for the work most likely would come from the state.
Diaz’s proposal doesn’t recommend what would happen to the Smith statue, which includes the inscription “Florida’s Memorial to her most distinguished soldier.”
This would be at least the second attempt to replace the Smith statue.
In 1993, the Senate, backed by heavy lobbying from the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, stood in the way of a House proposal to replace Smith with a statue of James Van Fleet. Van Fleet was a Polk City resident and early University of Florida football coach who served with honors in World War II and the Korean War.
Among the possible replacements that Diaz said have already been proposed for the Smith statue are railroad and hotel magnate Henry Flagler; entertainment entrepreneur Walt Disney; Seminole Chief Osceola; environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas; and writer Zora Neale Hurston.
However, Smith has his defenders.
C.J. Hart, commander of the Kirby-Smith Camp #1209 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Jacksonville, while deferring comment to the Sons of Confederate Veterans public-relations office, said Smith is a model citizen for Florida.
“Before they start slandering Kirby Smith’s name they need to check into what he did,” Hart said. “He was an educator. Who better to represent Florida than a guy that was interested in education?”
Other than being born to a distinguished family in St. Augustine in 1824, Smith had little to do with Florida during his lifetime.
A West Point graduate, Smith was wounded during the First Battle of Manassas, also known as the First Battle of Bull Run, and held a command in the Trans-Mississippi department. He is known for surrendering the last military force of the Confederacy. After the war, he was mostly an educator in Tennessee until his death in 1893.
In a letter to legislative leaders, members of Florida’s congressional delegates said that Smith “is not the best reflection of the great state of Florida.”
“We can replace this statue with one that celebrates the values that make our state so great like inclusion, diversity and justice,” the delegation members wrote.
The letter was signed by Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democratic U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, Kathy Castor, Ted Deutch, Gwen Graham, Alan Grayson, Lois Frankel, Patrick Murphy, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson.
Other states — Kansas, California, Alabama, Michigan, Iowa and Arizona — have replaced statues in the hall, and Ohio is changing a member of its lineup.
Smith would become the second statue of a Confederate war veteran removed.
In 2009, Alabama replaced a statue of Jabez Curry, a former U.S. House member who served as a staff aide to Confederate Gens. Joseph Johnston and Joseph Wheeler. Curry was replaced by a statue of author and political activist Helen Keller.
The Curry statue was relocated to Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Alabama’s other statue in the U.S. Capitol depicts Wheeler.
Five other states have Confederate soldiers or politicians as symbols in the national hall: Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida