After spending nearly a century in the nation’s capital, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith is moving to Tavares.
A bronze statue of the Confederate general will be relocated from the National Statuary Hall in Washington to a museum housed in the same building as the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, a five-member state panel decided Thursday.
The Lake County Historical Society and Museum’s proposal for the Smith statue was one of just three submitted to the State Location Selection Committee by a Wednesday deadline, a signal that, even in a Southern state like Florida, many communities are shying away from controversial Civil War symbols. [The museum is at 317 West Main Street in Tavares, in a building owned by the county government.]
Bob Grenier, the curator of the museum and head of the Lake County Historical Society, urged the committee to support his plan to move the statue to the center of the state, where millions of tourists annually visit nearby Orlando.
Located in a building that also houses the county’s chief law-enforcement official, the statue will be guarded around the clock, promised Grenier, who said he’s been working on the proposal for two years.
And the historian vowed that the relocation would be a permanent move for Smith’s statue, another factor the panel considered in its selection process.
“This building ain’t going anywhere,” he said, adding that the building just underwent a $1 million renovation. “The sheriff ain’t going anywhere. The museum ain’t going anywhere.”
The Legislature voted in 2016 to remove the Smith statue from the National Statuary Hall, where the general has represented the Sunshine State since 1922. The move to replace the statue came 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.
But it wasn’t until this year that the Republican-dominated Legislature agreed on a replacement for the Confederate general, finally settling on civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. Each state is allowed two representatives in the National Statuary Hall, with Florida also represented by John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning.
During Thursday’s meeting, panelist Steve Birtman asked Grenier how he would handle the specter of the Civil War and the role of Smith — who fought in the Mexican-American War and who, after joining the Confederacy, was wounded during the First Battle of Bull Run.
“How are you going to tell the story, the good and the bad, of this Floridian?” asked Birtman, who serves on the Florida Historical Commission, adding that Smith “took a ball” in the shoulder during the First Battle of Bull Run. “This whole war was a very dark period in our history and still plagues us today in some respects.”
Grenier said historians’ role is to educate the public.
“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, whether it’s heroism or courage or whatever, all comes from us as individuals, what’s inside of us,” he said.
The West Point-educated Smith was born in St. Augustine, but the St. Augustine Foundation failed to finalize a vote on a proposal to relocate the statue to his hometown prior to this week’s deadline, according to Thomas Graham, a professor emeritus of history at Flagler College.
Graham presented two potential plans for where the bronze sculpture could be displayed outside in St. Augustine’s historical center, including a spot that used to be “a kind of snack bar.”
Graham told the committee that local elected officials — who’ve had their own Confederate-related headaches — also have not taken a stand on the statue.
There’s “been a good bit of emotional discussion about this issue in St. Augustine,” where a Confederate memorial in the downtown plaza has been under fire by protesters, said Graham, who served on the city’s “Confederate Memorial Contextualization Advisory Committee.”
The lack of community support for the Smith statue was “a crushing blow” for St. Augustine, which was also home to the statue’s sculptor, C. Adrian Pillars, Birtman told reporters after Thursday’s meeting.
“What happens if they didn’t want it?” Birtman said. “Also, being outside was a difficult one for me, too. But historically, he should have been there.”
The selection committee also rejected a proposal by Wayne Wood of Jacksonville, who wanted to move the statue to his home in the city’s Riverside neighborhood. State law requires the statue to be available for public display.
While other communities are shunning or re-examining Confederate figures, Grenier said he and the rest of the Lake County team “have no reservations at all” about the Smith statue.
The bronze work of art will be located in a gallery within the museum, so visitors won’t see Smith’s likeness when they enter the building, Grenier told reporters after the meeting.
“We’re honoring the sensitivity of people,” he said, saying he wasn’t concerned about possible backlash.
“There’s no reason to (be concerned) because we’re not throwing it in the public’s face. You have to come into the museum and go into the gallery,” he said.
Grenier estimated it could cost up to $10,000 to remove the Smith statue from the statuary hall, transport it to Florida and set it up inside the museum.
Grenier told the panel his museum and the historical society “are prepared and committed” to whatever it costs “to bring Gen. Kirby Smith, his story, to Florida.”
During the public comment period at Thursday’s meeting, two speakers said that, while they did not want Smith’s statue taken out of the Washington hall, they would prefer it to be relocated to the old or new Capitol buildings in Tallahassee.
“I’m sure they (the applicants) mean well, but I don’t believe that our state property, Gen. Smith’s statue, should be sold to the highest bidder,” said Kerry Crocker, a Leon County resident who identified himself as the Florida division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida
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