In the early days of Florida’s statehood, nearly half of the population was enslaved. Florida’s agriculture industry and its early state capitols were built on the backs of slaves. Now the Legislature wants to memorialize the lives, deaths, and suffering of enslaved Floridians. Representative Kionne McGhee, a Cutler Bay Democrat, has been carrying the bill for two years.
“The state of Florida, clothed in House Bill 67, is prepared to show the world that a Florida slavery memorial should be placed between Jefferson and Monroe, flanked by Adams, on the rolling hills across the street from our great court,” McGhee said.
He defended the plan on the House floor, surrounded by his colleagues, who he identifies as both the descendants of slaves and slave owners. There’s no design yet. But McGhee’s bill would direct the state to build a memorial on the capitol grounds. McGhee says the history of the state’s lawmakers can’t be separated from the history of the state’s slaves.
“In 1824, the slaves from Gadsden came here, on this capitol complex, some 200 yards away, to clear the field to erect three log cabins to house thirteen members and one governor of the first Florida Legislative council,” McGhee said.
And it didn’t end there.
“Just behind us, there were slaves in 1845, who helped construct and build the Old Capitol, as we call it,” McGhee said.
McGhee said he wants to do right by a woman depicted in a mural painted on the walls of the House chambers.
“A young slave woman, and the things that she has gone through, with the sun that’s beaming on her face, her shadows covering the steps of that capitol, and her lips which are sealed. While to the right of her arm, are the shackles that held her down. I will attempt to give justice to her story,” McGhee said.
The full House passed the bill forward unanimously, as it did last session. Now the measure’s future is up to the Senate. Last year, it died in a committee chaired by Senator Dennis Baxley, a Lady Lake Republican. He’s a descendant of a Confederate soldier, and has a reputation of defending the Confederacy. But after killing the bill last year, Baxley let the measure be heard this session, and even voted for it.
“My concerns last year was that I’d really like to focus on the people who endured slavery rather than the institution itself. And I would like to honor people, rather than being about the institution. But I think they’ve worked through a good explanation that that is their intent and that would be the content of what’s on the monument," Baxley said.
After passing what was a major obstacle, the bill’s way forward is becoming clearer. Confederate soldiers already have a monument on the capitol grounds. If the bill passes, the slavery memorial would join other monuments to the state’s law enforcement officers, prisoners of war, women’s hall of fame, and Holocaust victims. The bill has one more committee stop before it can head to the Senate floor.