The Stories Behind Our Sculptures: Florida’s Confederate General Soon to be Homeless

I just happened to stumble into this incredible story about a Confederate General statue in Florida. Talk about timely.

Recent events have brought much needed attention to public statues in our country. We need to be thoughtful about who and what our statues honor. Does it honor one side of history at the expense of another? Does it hurt or disrespect a group of people who deserve better? It is a good time to reflect on our history and the stories behind the creation of our public statues.

We can’t just walk past them anymore. What to do about them is a conversation we need to have. Should they be contextualized with up-to-date labels? Moved to a museum? Defaced with graffiti by an angry mob? There are many options, and like most issues in the U.S. right now, it’s politicized and divisive. (We’re not alone. Germany and many former Soviet-bloc countries have faced this issue before, and have come up with a variety of solutions, such as Grutas Park in Lithuania.)

The United States Capitol has a National Statuary Collection in which each state donates two statues for display at the Capitol. Some are standing in Statuary Hall, whereas others are in “the crypt” and others at the Capitol Visitors Center. We should be asking ourselves, which two statues represent our state?

You can check this website to see who is representing your state. You might be surprised.

Just the other day, I was shocked to see that my adopted home state of Florida has a statue commemorating Confederate General Kirby Smith, “her most distinguished soldier.”

How did I not know this? Why isn’t this an outrage?

Well, actually it is. I did a little more digging and discovered that plans are already underway to replace it. They started back in 2016, after the white-supremacist murders in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Many concerned citizens began looking at the legacy of Confederate statues in the South. In 2016, the Florida legislature began to think about replacing their Confederate General.

There were two questions: where would the Confederate General go, and who would replace him? Confederate statues an be a bit of a hot potato, and this one is no exception. General Smith’s home was located in St. Augustine, Florida, but St. Augustine museums had no interest. The Lake County Historical Society won a bid for it, even if the general had few if any historical connections to the area. Lake County is located near Orlando in the center of Florida, and St. Augustine is in the far northeast corner of the state.

Despite the interest of the Lake County Historical Society, at least seven different municipalities within Lake County passed resolutions against it, and Rev. Michael Watkins, a local Lake County Pastor, led a movement to prevent it. Lake County Historical Museum representative Bob Grenier claimed he would put the statue in historical context. Watkins led a rally of 250 peaceful protestors in 2019. Here’s a local television news report about the controversy in 2019.

Efforts to block the relocation of the statue became a hot issue again in connection with the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in May-June, 2020. On Tuesday June 16, 2020, the Lake County Commission reversed its decision to accept the Confederate General. A “Unite for What’s Right” march in support of this decision will be held in Tavares in Lake County on Saturday, June 20th as part of a Juneteenth Day celebration. Security is being tightened as counter-protestors are expected as well.

So this half of the story still lingers. What will happen to the Confederate General now?

In the meantime, there is good news about its replacement. In 2016, the Florida legislature took on the question: which accomplished Floridian deserved the honor of having a statue in the U.S. Capitol? Three individuals made the shortlist, including African-American civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, environmental activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the founder of Publix grocery stores, George Jenkins.

I can’t imagine the tone-deaf debate in favor of Jenkins, although in their defense, Florida’s other statue in Statuary Hall is of a physician-inventor named John Gorrie, whose claim to fame was the invention of air-conditioning back in the 1800s. Floridians do love their a/c and their cold cut sandwiches from Publix.

Bethune’s inspiring life story is hard to match. The daughter of former slaves, Bethune grew up in South Carolina and was the only child in her family to go to school. She earned a scholarship to a female seminary in North Carolina and then to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. She returned to to the South to become a teacher and settled in Daytona, Florida, where she founded a school for African-American girls. She advised several U.S. Presidents from Coolidge to Truman, serving as FDR’s advisor on minority affairs. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, she founded the National Council of Negro Women and served as the president of the National Association of Colored Women. I could go on. She’s amazing.

Mary MacLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

In any event, the stalemate in the Florida legislature was broken in 2018, when the legislature finally passed a law authorizing the change from Smith to Bethune. Still, the law didn’t take effect until July 10, 2019, when Republican Governor Ron DeSantis finally sent an official letter to the U.S. Capitol Architect.

As far as I have been able to tell, the sculpture of Bethune is not yet complete. The Florida Department of State – Division of Cultural Affairs coordinated a national competition and selected Nilda Comas, a leading Fort Lauderdale sculptor to complete the project. A not-for-profit organization called The Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund raised about $400,000 in private funds to pay for the commission, many of which came from Daytona business and organizations.

At last word, Nilda Comas was still in Italy working on the statue, which is being made out of marble from the same quarry as Michelangelo’s “David.” It was scheduled to be delivered to Washington, D.C. the summer of 2020, but it is likely that COVID-19 has disrupted the intended schedule.

Stay tuned for an update. In the meantime, who represents your state in the Statuary Hall of Congress?