Effort to build Florida Slavery Memorial returns to lawmakers’ agenda

The proposal — sponsored by a Miami Democrat — takes on new meaning against the backdrop of a growing racial divide

State House members wasted no time this week in reviving a proposal for a Florida Slavery Memorial near the Capitol, an idea that stalled amid some controversy at the end of the 2017 session last spring.

Now several months later, the proposal — sponsored by Miami Democratic Rep. Kionne McGhee — takes on new meaning against a backdrop of the growing racial divide across America and of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., during the summer over the removal of a Confederate statue there.

“It sends a signal to the entire country that Florida is willing to take a step — like it has always done in certain circumstances — in the right direction. We lead by example. We are Florida,” McGhee said after his bill (HB 67) swiftly passed its first of three House committees by a unanimous vote Wednesday morning. (The bill was the first piece of legislation considered by the House government oversight committee ahead of the 2018 session.)

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: “A senator said a Florida Slavery Memorial would ‘celebrate defeat.’ Lawmakers are furious.”

McGhee said the debate over whether symbols of the Confederacy — including one on the Florida Capitol grounds — ought to be removed is a separate issue from the Florida Slavery Memorial he wants built. But the two matters are nonetheless intertwined in the broader national discussion on race.

In contrast to the Confederacy debate, though, the slavery memorial concept has resounding bipartisan support in the Florida House, where it passed unanimously last session after stalling in the Senate when a key chairman blocked it.

“This particular monument has garnered the support of everyone — the only people who I feel are going to be against this are individuals that haven’t particularly sat down and come to grips with the reality that we have moved forward in a bipartisan way and the times that we’ve seen in the past where folk wanted to divide us based upon class and culture, those days are completely over,” said McGhee, who’s poised to be the House Democratic leader after the 2018 elections. “This is a movement and it’s going to be driven by the people.”

effort-to-build-florida-slavery-memorial-returns-to-lawmakers-agenda photo 1 Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami Florida House

The first Republican co-sponsor of McGhee’s measure both last session and this upcoming session was Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

He told reporters Wednesday that the slavery memorial proposal serves as a way to “counterbalance” the debate over Confederate flags and monuments.

“I’ve been a proponent of free speech and I know there’s been a lot of things in the press about the Confederate flag — and I’ve always said we shouldn’t be attacking one side of free speech. The answer to free speech is more free speech,” Ingoglia said.

“So I believe that adding this is a good thing — not only to remind us of the injustices that happened in the past but in the light of everything that’s happened now, it’s to counterbalance everything and remind everybody.”

If lawmakers approve the memorial in 2018, the Department of Management Services and the Florida Historical Commission would determine its design and placement on the Capitol Complex in Tallahassee — where a post-Civil War monument already stands in honor of Leon County soldiers who died fighting for the Confederacy, which wanted to preserve slavery.

effort-to-build-florida-slavery-memorial-returns-to-lawmakers-agenda photo 2 A monument honoring slain Confederate soldiers stands on the grounds of the state Capitol Complex in Tallahassee. Some politicians wanted the monument removed in the wake of the violent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. Kristen M. Clark kclark@miamiherald.com

After the violent rallies in Charlottesville two months ago — which drew neo-Nazis and white nationalists, who clashed with counterprotesters — some Florida Democrats called on Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature to remove the obelisk.

Scott himself remained silent on what should happen with the monument, but some state leaders — including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes — rejected the prospect of considering its removal.

The only Confederate symbol lawmakers remain agreed on removing at this time is one they’ve already voted to do away with: the statue of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith that is one of two representing Florida in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.

Lawmakers voted in 2016 to remove Smith’s statue but failed to agree last spring on whom to replace him with. An independent panel recommended three contenders for lawmakers to choose from: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a champion for the Everglades; Mary McLeod Bethune, a Florida educator and civil rights pioneer; and George Jenkins, the founder of Publix supermarkets.

Another House panel acted swiftly this week to revive that conversation, too. The Government Accountability Committee voted 20-1 on Tuesday to support replacing Smith with a statue of Bethune (HB 139) — which, if approved, would be the first statue of an African American in Statuary Hall, lawmakers said.

“I think this is a great way to start committee weeks. I think it’s important that everyone understands that we shouldn’t ever try to forget or erase our country’s shameful history, but we also need to not ever glorify it or glorify that history in anyway, which is an important part of learning about our past and from our past,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said.

effort-to-build-florida-slavery-memorial-returns-to-lawmakers-agenda photo 3 Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala Scott Keeler TAMPA BAY TIMES

As with his original measure last spring, McGhee wants a Florida Slavery Memorial “to honor the nameless and forgotten men women and children who have gone unrecognized for their undeniable contributions to our great state and to this great country.”

The proposal stalled in the Senate after Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley — a defender of Confederate symbols — declined to hear it in his committee because he objected to “memorializing slavery” and said the monument would “celebrate defeat.”

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: “Slavery memorial won’t happen this year. But there’s peace.”

While Baxley’s remarks initially set off a firestorm of backlash from black lawmakers and Democrats, he and McGhee made amends before the end of the 2017 session — and this week, they both expressed optimism at finding compromise to advance the bill in 2018.

“My intention is to hear it,” Baxley told the Herald/Times, but said he still wants some changes made to the Senate version (SB 286), which is being sponsored St. Petersburg Democrat Darryl Rouson.

“I still think I can help improve it a little bit,” Baxley said, reiterating: “It was never my intention to stop the bill; I didn’t think it was ready.”

McGhee said it’s his understanding Baxley wants “little technical differences but nothing substantive that would stop this bill.” He said Baxley also wants to add money to the bill to ensure the costs of building the memorial are covered.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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