The Florida Senate has given the green light to an effort to put a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune in the U.S. Capitol. Her likeness would replace a statue of a Confederate General.
Sen. Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) is sponsoring the bill to put Mary McLeod Bethune—a black educator and civil rights activist—in National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C.
Along with the Father of Air Conditioning John Gorrie, Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith is currently representing Florida in the hall. Bethune’s statue would replace Smith’s.
“Dr. Bethune received a unanimous vote of the members of the Great Floridians committee during the selection process for a new representative. Dr. Bethune was appointed to several national commissions, in the Coolidge and Hoover administration, and she became an influential advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt,” said Thurston. “Dr. Bethune served as the first African American woman to head a federal agency. Dr. Bethune founded what is now Bethune-Cookman University as well as the National Council of Negro Women.”
Thanks to a change to the bill last week, the measure would now allow the Florida Department of State’s Division of Cultural Affairs to take back the returned statue of Smith and make it available to the public.
“And, I am committed to finding him a place of honor here because I think we should all honor those who come before us,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), a descendant of a Confederate soldier.
With the bill’s new change, he told Thurston he’ll now support the bill.
When the measure came up in previous committees, Baxley voted against it.
“I grew up in Daytona my last two years, and I know of her greatness, and I am very pleased that we’re honoring her,” said Baxley, on the Senate floor. “But, it’s always been a sticking point for me that we don’t need to bestow dishonor in order to honor. So, while I still have some heartburn about disrespecting General Kirby Smith, just because of history that we didn’t live, you [Thurston] showed respect by your receiving of that amendment…and it is appropriate to honor her.”
Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) says he’s glad this bill has made it this far. And, he says it would also be great if the Florida legislature also appropriated some funds for the replacement of the statue.
According to the bill’s analysis, it’s expected to cost $388,000—a lot of which could come from private donations, if it’s not addressed in the budget. But, Bracy says that could take years.
“The Arts Council that chose Dr. Bethune has made it clear that there will be a cost associated with sculpting the statute and also transporting it to Washington D.C., and bringing Mr. Kirby’s [Smith] statue back,” he said. “And, so that wasn’t addressed in the budget, but I want to make sure that we consider doing that. There were some states that picked someone, and it took subsequent seven, eight years to actually get the statue to Washington D.C. because there was not an appropriation to address that. So, I want to make sure that this is not delayed.”
But, overall, Senator Thurston, the bill’s sponsor, says his measure will make national history.
“Dr. Bethune will be the first African American to represent a state in the Hall. Bethune’s life and values illustrate the best of Florida,” he said. “Choosing her likeness for the Hall will send a powerful signal to the world that Floridians recognize our state’s rich history, and its present day diversity.”
And, with the Senate’s unanimous passage of the bill, the ball is now in the Florida House’s court. The House companion bill still has one more committee stop before heading to the floor.
And, if it passes the full House and gets signed by the Governor, the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress would have to then approve the replacement in National Statuary Hall.
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