The Lake County Commission endorsed relocating a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith to Tavares.
The board voted 3-2 in favor of a Lake County Historical Museum plan to display the statue in town. The move comes as nine Lake County cities, including Tavares, lobby against the move.
County Commission chair Leslie Campione said the matter has sparked difficult discussion. “Is it about racism? Is it about wiping out the past?” she said. “How far do you go?”
The Smith statue stands now in National Statuary Hall as one of two representing Florida. The Florida Legislature in 2018 voted to replace the statue with one of Mary McLeod Bethune, co-founder of Bethune Cookman University.
Campione brought the issue forward, suggesting the commission endorse the Lake County Historical Society effort to relocate the statue. She maintained the monument could educate about the ills of slavery and the Civil War, not glorify Confederate values.
“While the country’s history is not perfect, the ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence are perfect,” she said. “Because mankind is not perfect, it took time for our Constitution and legal system to treat all of us equally.”
But other members of the board wanted a change in course. Commissioner Wendy Breeden motioned for the board to ask Gov. Ron DeSantis to find a new location for the statue.
“I won’t support any other expenses for the museum beyond what we have already approved,” she said, predicting the cost of exhibiting the statue outweigh benefits.
“It is our facility and we are the ones who determine what should happen to that facility.”
Breeden also said opposition to the statue was felt widely in the community.
“If someone made the comment that politicians who are opposed to this statue are engaged in political theater, I resent that,” Breeden said. “I would be much happier if I never had to say a word on this issue.”
A majority of the board ultimately considered any stance against the museum decision on the statue would be akin to historical censorship.
The board for the museum itself made a case in a letter that Tavares would be a good place to relocate the Smith monument.
“We feel that our museum, centrally located in the State, is a good geographical location for an artifact of this nature, especially considering that our war gallery has a display about Lake County residents who fought in the Civil War,” the letter reads.
Smith’s own connection to the region, though, was called into question. Born in St. Augustine, Smith lived most of his life outside the state.
An overwhelming majority of individuals speaking at the meeting spoke out against bringing the statue to Tavares. Many characterized it not as a Civil War monument but a relic of the Jim Crow era.
Choice Edwards, a Clermont activist, noted the Smith statue’s origins came three generations after the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“That coincides with segregation, Jim Crow laws and a devastating campaign of racial violence and murder by the Klu Klux Klan,” Edwards said.
Eustis Mayor Robert Lindon noted an Aug. 10 protest march against the statue. Nine of the 14 municipalities in Lake County approved formal resolutions opposing the relocation of the statue.
Many critics of the statue note the Lake County Historical Society Museum intends to house the museum in a facility above the historic county jail. That means the Confederate statue would stand in the same building where infamous Sheriff Willis McCall once operated.
“He absolutely was a tyrant who abused African-Americans in that building,” said Barbara Hill, another opponent of the statue.
The notorious sheriff, who served seven terms, most recently drew national history for his actions in mistreatment of the Groveland Four. The story of four African-Americans accused of rape was the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Devil in the Grove.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Cabinet recently voted unanimously to posthumously pardon the men. Campione was among officials who traveled to Tallahassee to support such a decision.
The Lake County Commission also heard from a handful of supporters of the statue.
Herb Seagers said when Florida erected a statue of Smith in the 1920s, his achievements in life played a significant role. Those include fighting for the protection on individual rights.
“I don’t know the man. He died in 1893,” Seagers said. “But he does not sound like the evil devil he’s been portrayed as so far.”
And Vance Jochim, the blogger behind FiscalRangers.com, characterized opposition to the statue as a radical socialist plot. While he said African Americans had a legitimate gripe, Democratic groups were using Confederate statues to stoke resentment.
Notably, some critics of the statue said the only support for the statue came from Sons of the Confederacy groups in Jacksonville, far from Lake County. A few accused state Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, of orchestrating the relocation when the decision was made to remove the Smith statue from Congress.