Florida Lawmakers Advance Memorial Measures

Dec 8, 2017

Credit DXR via wikimedia commons

When the 2018 lawmaking session begins in January, Florida lawmakers will again wrestle with who we honor and how we memorialize them.  One measure would establish a monument—another would remove one.

This month, a measure establishing a slavery memorial at the Florida Capitol began moving in the state Senate.

“This Senate bill provides legislative intent first to recognize the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the American colonies including Florida,” Sen. Daryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) says.

The same bill has already made it to the House floor.  House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee has navigated his measure through three committees without a single no vote.  The only pushback he’s gotten has been minimal—from Rep. Jay Fant (R-Jacksonville).

“No thought process on despite how much it is, how we will pay for it?” he asked at one committee stop, “through which budget process or foundation or outside of—is it taxpayer expense, or is it going to be private expense?”

McGhee says how much and from where are questions for a later day, but he says public and private dollars will fund the monument.  Fant voted in favor of the bill. 

As St. Petersburg Democrat Daryl Rouson introduced the bill, it seemed as though the Senate version would move along as quietly as the House bill. 

“This bill passed every committee in the House last session,” Rouson said, “passed off the House floor and we’re having an opportunity to come back and I thank you for your kindness mister chair in agenda-ing this bill and allowing it to be heard.”

But after the votes came in—and the bill passed unanimously—one member decided to speak up.

Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala)
Credit Florida House of Representatives

“I would like to comment, since this bill has had some prominence the last couple years,” committee Chair Dennis Baxley said.

The Ocala Republican was the senator who refused to hear a similar bill earlier this year—effectively killing the legislation.  As he did then, Baxley explains his opposition as a desire to honor people and not an institution.  It’s an excuse McGhee panned at the time, and Baxley says he now believes the bill addresses his concerns.

“My only other comment would be that I do this with an expectation of permanency,” Baxley said, “that you should reasonably expect that this will be a permanent placement.  And I hope that we can keep growing a mutual respect for all of us honoring with permanency those that came before us.”

Florida's statue of Edmund Kirby Smith in Washington D.C.
Credit U.S. Capitol via Wikimedia Commons

But Baxley’s support for the slavery memorial echoes his complaints against another bill wrapped up in Florida’s antebellum legacy—replacing a statue of confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith with pioneering African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune.

“I expect that you’re placing here in statuary hall with an expectation of permanency,” Baxley said during debate for that bill in November.  “That’s what we do.”

“So regrettably I can’t vote for this because I think it’s supporting the continuation of cultural purging and dishonoring of those who came before us.”

Every state has two statues in the Washington D.C. collection of illustrious men or women from their state.  In addition to Smith, Florida is represented by John Gorrie, and early developer of air conditioning. 

Despite Baxley’s opposition, the measure to replace Smith’s statue, like the one to establish a slavery memorial, appears to be in good position ahead of the official start of the lawmaking session.