Leesburg commission fights relocation of Confederate statue

A split Leesburg City Commission expressed displeasure with a plan to bring this statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith to the Lake County Historical Museum in Tavares from Washington, D.C.

A split Leesburg Commission voted Monday night to oppose a plan to relocate a Confederate statue to Lake County.

Three members of the commission – Mayor Dan Robuck, Mayor Pro Tem John Christian and Commissioner Bob Bone – made it clear that they are unhappy with a decision to bring a statue of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith to the Lake County Historical Museum in Tavares from Washington, D.C. The other two commissioners, Jay Hurley and Elise Dennison, voted against the resolution.

Smith was a career Army officer who was born in St. Augustine in 1824. He joined the Confederate States of America after fighting in the Mexican-American War.

According to the resolution from the commission, an ad-hoc committee of the Florida Historical Commission and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture (Statue Location Section Committee) voted to relocate the statue of Smith from the National Hall Collection in Washington, D.C. to the museum in Tavares. One of the criteria used in the relocation decision was to place the statue in a site where Smith’s “contribution had historical significance in relation to the subject,” the resolution says.

But the three commissioners pointed out that Smith had no connection to Lake County or Leesburg. They also said they are against the plan because the historical museum offers “an exciting and informative view” of Lake County history, and that Lake County wasn’t even officially established until 1887 – 22 years after the Civil War ended.

The curator of the historical museum, however, was quoted in June by WFSU Public Media as saying the facility in Tavares is a prime location for the statue.

“We believe that this is a work of art that needs to be fair and easy accessibility for all Floridians to come and see,” Bob Grenier told the committee that was working to relocate the statue. That group is hoping to replace it with one of civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. The majority of the commission clearly felt differently and agreed to send the resolution to the committees that voted on the statue’s location, as well as to the Lake County Board of County Commissioners and the powers that be at the historical museum.

Robuck said it’s important for Leesburg residents to understand that the commission isn’t opposed to statues in general or Civil War history.

“This is in opposition to a statue that has nothing to do with Lake County,” he said. “The Civil War had nothing to do with Lake County. We weren’t in existence until 1887, and as such, it doesn’t belong in a museum whose mission is to celebrate the history of Lake County.”

Bone agreed, saying he believes the resolution could have been more strongly worded. And Christian reminded the audience why statues like those of Kirby were built while thanking City Manager Al Minner for researching the issue and making the commission aware of it.

“They were erected to intimidate” African Americans, he said, adding that he wished the commission had been given a chance to weigh in on the issue before a decision was made.

“This was kind of done without any discussion,” he added. “We didn’t even get to talk about it.”

Michael Watkins, of Tavares, also condemned the meaning behind the statues of Smith and other Confederate leaders.

“They are supposed to send a message that some people are not equal to others,” he said. “That was the reason for them.”

Watkins added that it’s hard to move forward as a community when a decision like this one is made.

“Why would we want to bring a statue of a man who fought to keep slavery alive?” he asked. “Why would we want to send that message that things haven’t changed?”

Pastor Chris Walker, of Groveland, said Smith deserted the U.S. military when he joined the Confederate Army.

“He should not be honored, not only in Lake County, but he should not be honored in any county,” Walker said. “His reign represents economic exploitation of African Americans.”

Walker added that Smith refused to let the slaves know they were free after President Abraham Lincoln had given the proclamation.

“I think we should do ourselves a good favor and just say no to the general,” Walker said.

For his part, Hurley said he didn’t support the resolution because it serves to divide the community.

“There’s a committee that’s in charge of that and it falls under the purview of Lake County,” he said. “So I just personally don’t feel like taking a stand as a city, with absolutely no authority, power or say in the matter, does anything besides just put us on one side of the aisle or the other.”