The National Statuary Hall Collection is a neat feature of the United States Capitol where each state gets to erect statues of two of its more prominent historical residents. Guess which two people are honored by Florida? A guy who invented an early precursor to air conditioning (this is true, and honestly very fitting) and a little-known Confederate general who barely ever lived in Florida.
While other Southern states are now grappling with whether to remove Confederate flags from various places of official honor in the wake of the Charleston massacre, Florida already did so in 2001 when Jeb Bush quietly removed the battle flag from the state's capitol. Now, Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor is proposing that a statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith be removed from Florida's place in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
Kirby was born in St. Augustine back in 1824. His family had recently moved to the state from Connecticut after his father received an appointment as a judge in Florida back when it was just a territory. Kirby was sent to a boarding school in Virginia at 12 and stayed there until he attended West Point. Kirby never lived in Florida for any great length of time again, and contributed nothing directly to the history of the state. He spent time with the U.S. Army before joining the Confederate army. He died in Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1883 where he had been a professor at the University of the South for nearly 18 years.
“Leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and many others have made more lasting and positive contributions to our great state,” Castor said in a statement. “Several states have recently revisited the historical representation of their statues in the Capitol and it is time for Florida to do the same.”
Indeed, Smith's statue has sat in the collection since 1922, but a 2005 law allowed states to replace their existing statues. Six so far have done so. Most notably, California replaced a statue of Thomas Starr King, an minister and gifted speaker credited with keeping California part of the Union during the Civil War, with Ronald Reagan.
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Alabama also replaced a statue of a Confederate lieutenant colonel with one of Helen Keller.
Florida's Confederate heritage is a bit of a strange case. Only one major battle of the Civil War was fought here, and at the time the state was by far the smallest by population in the South. Some key parts of Florida never left Union control — including all of Key West — and the Union quickly captured and remained in control of others. The southern portion of the state became a haven for Confederate deserters and runaway slaves. Pro-Union and anti-Confederacy sentiments remained strong in the state, and while this was a time before exact polling, some historical estimates believe that as many as half of white Floridians had become anti-Confederacy by the end of the war.
Florida has since grown from the smallest state in the Confederacy, to the third largest in all of America. Much of that population gain was driven by migration from Northern and Midwestern states (not to mention immigration from outside of America).
Castor specifically mentioned Mary McLeod Bethune, an early female leader for civil rights, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a journalist and environmentalist whose pioneering work kicked off efforts to preserve the Everglades, as possible replacements. A statue of Bethune currently sits in Lincoln Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C.