House Panel Approves D.C. Statue Switch

Nov 4, 2015

Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith
Credit U.S. Capitol via Wikimedia Commons

House lawmakers unanimously approved a measure aimed at replacing a statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith in Washington D.C.’s Statuary Hall.  But there’s a long way to go.

Florida has two entries in Statuary Hall.  John Gorrie and Edmund Kirby Smith.  If those names don’t ring a bell, you’re not alone.

Rep. Jose Diaz (R-Miami) says on a recent trip to D.C. with fellow lawmakers, none of them knew who represented Florida either.

“When this intern answered the question for us and told us that the representatives of Florida were John Gorrie and Edmund Kirby Smith we all kind of scratched our heads went back home and started doing research as to who these folks were,” Diaz says.

John Gorrie developed an early form of air conditioning, and Smith was a confederate general.  Diaz is leading the push to replace Smith’s statue but not because of his military service.  Florida added Smith’s statue to the national collection in 1922, and Diaz points out a lot has happened in the past ninety-odd years.

“Sliced bread was still not introduced,” Diaz says of 1922, “it would come out six years later.”

Also, in that time the state’s population has ballooned from about 1 million to almost 20 million. 

But the measure is drawing critics.  Seber Newsome III says the move is about whitewashing history.

“This is a blatant attempt to erase southern history and heritage by taking advantage of a terrible situation,” Newsome says.

Rep. Ed Narain (D-Tampa), head of the Florida legislative black caucus and Diaz’s co-sponsor, admits the symbolism connected Smith—if not Smith himself—is a motivating factor.  But he’s supporting the idea to acknowledge how the state has grown.

“As far as General Kirby being a part of the Confederacy that’s one of those things that for a lot of people is a sore subject,” Narain says, “For me personally it is a sore issue that this person was a Confederate general, and the last to surrender which is why some people hold him in high regard.”

“So to remove his statue, for some they’ll say it’s a whitewashing of history but it isn’t,” Narain goes on.  “It’s actually us trying to find someone who’s more representative of the state, less offensive and someone that the majority of Floridians can agree is truly representative of our values.”

Diaz compares the change to the routine replacement of portraits for former Speakers in the House chamber.  He says the Architect of the Capitol—the office in charge of Statuary Hall—requires retired statues be sent to a place of honor, and the treatment of Smith’s statue would be no different.  If the measure passes, the Great Floridians Council will select a replacement.