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Proposal to replace statue of Confederate general advances in Florida House

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A House committee on Wednesday OK’d a legislative move to replace the statue of a Confederate army general as one of Florida’s two eminences in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall where it’s been since 1922.

The House Economics Committee unanimously approved the proposal sponsored by Miami Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz to replace the statue of Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. The legislation also would replace Florida’s other statue, Dr. John Gorrie, who pioneered air conditioning in the 1840s.

Smith resigned from the U.S. Army in 1861 to join the Confederate forces. A St. Augustine native, he was one of the last major commanding Confederate army officers to surrender at the end of the Civil War. Smith did not surrender until June 2, 1865, in Galveston, Texas – nearly two months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army in Virginia.

The legislation (HB  141) calls for the Great Floridians Program within the Department of State be the agency responsible for coming up with choosing new Floridians to replace Smith and Gorrie.

“Ladies and gentlemen, to all of us, representing the third largest state in this country, with the diversity and strength of Floridians born here or brought here, I believe we can do better,” Nancy Hayman, a Miami-Dade County Commissioner and former state legislator, said in her testimoney in support of the bill. Miami-Dade’s County Commission recently passed a resolution allowing the Great Floridians Program to review who is representing Florida.

Members of the committee agreed.

Dania Beach Democrat Joseph Geller called it a “disgrace” that Smith is one of two Floridians honored in the U.S. Capitol. “I don’t know very much about General Kirby Smith, but he’s a not a symbol of the best that this state has to offer, and he ought to be removed as quickly as that can be done without any question.”

Critics of the legislation have said it’s a knee-jerk reaction done in response to the South Carolina Legislature removing the Confederate flag from their capital grounds last summer.

Tampa Democrat Ed Narain, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said he was disappointed in the “uncivil discourse” that ensured after the Florida Legislature began moving on the bill last year.

“Typically, when we want to honor somebody, we’re doing it because we want to honor someone, we’re doing it because of their positive contributions to the state,” Narain said. “Or, because they’ve done something that everybody can buy into and say this person reflects Florida. Unfortunately, General Smith simply doesn’t do that.”

A similar bill sponsored by Pasco County Republican John Legg is moving through the Senate.

Legg’s bill, however, only singles out Smith, whereas the House bill calls to replace both Smith and Gorrie’s statues.

Franklin County Commissioner Rick Watson advocated for Gorrie’s statue to remain in the Capitol. “Some of you might not know how important John Gorrie was to the state of Florida,” he said, referring to how Gorrie created the first ice machine in the mid-19th century, a breakthrough that ultimately led to the creation of air conditioning.

“Arguably, Florida would not be the state it is today without air conditioning, ” Watson said.

5 p.m. update: Later Wednesday, the Florida Senate discussed its own measure (SB 310) that would replace Smith’s statue but not Gorrie’s.

Its sponsor, Lutz Republican John Legg, noted that Smith only lived in Florida till he was 12 years old. GOP Sen. Alan Hays of Umatilla, however, complained the measure smacked of “revisionist history.”

Legg said it didn’t, posing the question he thought should be asked: “Is he the best person to reflect the history and values of our state?”

State Sen. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat, suggested one replacement: Harry T. Moore, a civil-rights pioneer who was killed with his wife by a bomb planted in his Brevard County home on Christmas night 1951.

That bill will be voted on Thursday.


Capital correspondent Jim Rosica contributed to this report.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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