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Bethune Gets One Step Closer To Statuary Hall

Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall at Bethune-Cookman University.
public domain via Florida Memory
Florida Memory

The Florida Legislature is poised to make good on a 2016 decision to replace one of its entries in Washington D.C.’s statuary hall.  Mary McLeod Bethune seems likely to get the nod.

Before Florida’s Senate appropriations committee, Sen. Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) laid out his case for Bethune.

Bethune circa 1915
Credit public domain via Florida Memory
Bethune circa 1915

“Dr. Bethune was appointed to several national commissions in the Coolidge and Hoover administrations and she became an influential advisor to Franklin Roosevelt,” he says.  “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.”

And it seems the bid is in good shape. 

Measures sending Bethune to Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. are entering their last committee stops, and legislative leaders may have greased the skids a bit—assigning only two hearings per chamber when most measures get three. 

But it’s the person Bethune is in line to replace that’s raising hackles in certain quarters.

“Let’s face it, Edmund Kirby Smith was the highest ranking military man Florida has ever produced—four star general,” David McAllister says.

Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith
Credit unknown
Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith

But the important caveat is Smith became a general in the confederate army.  Florida sent his statue to the hall in 1922, but in more recent years lawmakers have been reconsidering the sculpture—depicting Smith in full confederate dress uniform. 

Committee chair Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) is unequivocal: the decision to replace Smith has been made.

“We’re not here today to re-litigate whether that was a good decision or not,” Bradley says.  “That decision’s been made and we’ve moved forward.  We’re here to talk about what we’re going to do going forward in terms of the statue to replace it and before us.”

People can taint history, but you can't destroy it.

But that didn’t stop confederate sympathizers like McAllister from arguing to keep Smith’s statue where it is.  And it wasn’t just members of the public lamenting the move. 

“I have a long history of honoring people,” Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) says. “And the ultimate is to desecrate the grave or someone’s monument or marker.  And I’m very concerned about what this does to us as a culture when we go through cultural purging.”

But Miami Gardens Democrat Oscar Braynon pushes back on the suggestion that removing Smith’s statue rises to the level of cultural purging.

“Someone said before that their family—that they can trace their family back to 1830,” Braynon says.  “My parents are historians, they travel around the country trying to find records about our family, and they have not been able to get back to 1830.  And I’m sure we know why, because we were under slavery at that point.”

Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) goes further—arguing there’s fundamentally no way blot out our history.

“Our words here today will be a part of history—it will never be destroyed,” Gibson says.

“People can taint history, but you can’t destroy it.”

Assuming the state legislature approves the proposal replacing Smith with Bethune, the confederate general’s statue won’t just disappear.  Smith’s statue, like every other monument removed from Statuary Hall, will likely find a new home somewhere in Florida.  

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.