A House committee on Wednesday became the latest stop in a legislative move to replace a statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith in the U.S. Capitol Building, which has been there since 1922. Smith resigned from the U.S. Army in 1861 to join the Confederate forces. He was born in St. Augustine and was one of the last major commanding officers in the Confederate Army to surrender during the Civil War. Smith, a Lieutenant General fighting in Texas, did not surrender until June 2, 1865, in Galveston – nearly two months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army in Virginia.
The House Economics Committee unanimously approved a proposal sponsored by Miami Republican Jose Felix Diaz that calls for replacing the statue of General Smith, as well as that of the other Floridian depicted in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, Dr. John 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,” said Nancy Hayman, a Miami-Dade County Commissioner and former state legislator who testified in support of the bill. Miami-Dade’s County Commission recently passed a resolution allowing the historical board to review who is representing Florida.
Members of the committee agreed.
Dania Beach Democrat Joseph Geller said it was a “disgrace” that Smith is one of two Floridians honored in the 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,” he said.
Critics of the legislation have said that it’s a knee-jerk reaction done in response to the South Carolina Legislature voting to remove 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,” said Narain. “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.”
Diaz’ bill (HB 141) would have the Great Floridians Program within the Department of State be the agency responsible for coming up with new Floridians to replace Smith and Gorrie. Pasco County Republican John Legg proposed a similar bill in 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.