'I don't see how anything good comes out of this,' Lake commissioner says of effort to bring Confederate statue to Lake County museum
July 25--TAVARES -- After hours of listening to speaker after speaker denounce a plan to relocate a statue of a Florida-born Confederate general from the U.S. Capitol to the Lake County Historical Museum, County Commission Chairman Tim Sullivan said he got the message.
"I don't see how anything good comes out of this," Sullivan said of the idea of Lake County as the new permanent home of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith's statue.
Black and white residents alike implored the all-white commission to stop the all-white museum board from bringing the statue of the slave-owning general to Tavares, saying its presence in Lake would harm race relations in a county once ruled by Willis McCall, a notoriously racist seven-term sheriff.
But neither the outcry nor the commission's apparent change of heart swayed museum curator Bobby Grenier, who said he still plans to add the bronze figure to the small museum's collection of war artifacts.
"It's history," he said.
Grenier, a Tavares City Council member who said he was saddened by the community response, declined to be interviewed at length but briefly answered a few questions in his museum office seated at a desk that had belonged to McCall.
The issue of the statue was not on the commission's Tuesday agenda and no binding vote was taken, but 34 people rose to speak during a public-comment period that at times sounded like a church gathering with audience members responding with applause and amens.
A half-dozen speakers were clergy.
"If that [statue] is allowed, in my mind, I can imagine other things coming in that are called 'history.' I can imagine someone putting on a white sheet and a hood and displaying it and calling it 'history,'" said Tavares pastor Lillie Brown, who said the figure evoked hurtful memories of segregation. "I stand representing our race asking you, 'Please, whatever you can do, do not allow that statue to enter in our county seat.'"
Before the meeting, another pastor, Michael Watkins, warned of the general's divisive message.
"When we welcome in, celebrate a statue of a person who was a Confederate soldier who fought to keep slavery ... it kind of sends a message to us about white supremacy and keeping black people in their place," Watkins said. "Why does Lake County want to welcome that kind of thing with all the history we've had here and in a building owned by the taxpayers?"
He told commissioners they ought to terminate the lease agreement with the museum if the proposal goes forward.
"There are things you can do to change this...," he said.
The county's agreement with the historical society allows commissioners to terminate the museum lease at any time "with or without cause" with six months notice.
Lake County provides the group with $18,000 in funding, but the estimated $10,000 cost to transport the statue here will be funded by private donations, Greiner said.
Sullivan -- the commission's liaison to the museum board -- said he would relay the community's view, but the decision rested with the volunteer board.
Greiner said he expected the museum board would vote to accept the statue, though he doubted the vote would be unanimous.
Commissioners acknowledged they individually had supported Greiner's effort to bid for the statue and hadn't sought input from the black community.
In the new light, Commissioner Wendy Breeden agreed the statue would be out of place in Lake County.
"I hope the historical society will make a different decision because I'm not sure it's right for our county," she said. "I have withdrawn my support."
Fellow commissioners Sullivan, Leslie Campione and Sean Parks expressed similar views.
Commissioner Josh Blake, however, said he didn't see commissioners' role to be "government censors."
"I think you should take that argument directly to the museum board," he said to statue opponents.
Commissioners' comments came after speakers complained that Grenier didn't reach out to black residents to see how they felt about giving a permanent home to a monument honoring a Civil War figure who had no apparent link to Lake County beyond his service to a Southern cause that spawned whites-only drinking fountains and McCall.
"Our hearts are extremely heavy since it's clear there never was any intention to include the black community in the discussion," said Mae Hazelton, 62, of Eustis.
Architect of the Capitol
Statue in the U.S. Capitol of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith.
Statue in the U.S. Capitol of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. (Architect of the Capitol)
The Smith statue is scheduled to be evicted in 2020 from its home since 1922 in the National Statuary Hall to make room for a statue of civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
The Florida Senate voted unanimously in January to replace the general's statue at the Capitol with a figure of Bethune, an African-American woman who founded what is now Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and who registered blacks to vote during the era of Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation in the post-Civil War South.
Grenier was thrilled when the museum was picked June 28 in Tallahassee to serve as the new home for the Smith statue.
After the county won the statue, he said, "For us, it's like getting King Tut."
The museum is located in the county's historic courthouse, also the home to the sheriff's administrative offices.
He said the statue of the general will be displayed in a room honoring war veterans.
FLORIDA STATE ARCHIVES
This 1949 photo shows Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall standing at the scene where he shot Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, two of the Groveland Four suspects in an alleged rape case. Shepherd died but Irvin survived and said McCall shot them without provocation.
This 1949 photo shows Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall standing at the scene where he shot Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, two of the Groveland Four suspects in an alleged rape case. Shepherd died but Irvin survived and said McCall shot them without provocation. (FLORIDA STATE ARCHIVES)
Born in 1824 in St, Augustine, Smith died in 1893 and was the last surviving full general of either army.
Grenier has said the statue is a piece of American history and deserves to be displayed.
Since Lake County was picked for the statue, Grenier has installed small displays recognizing the late T.H. Poole Sr. of Eustis, former state and national head of the NAACP, and the Groveland Four, four black men wrongfully accused and convicted of raping a 17-year-old white housewife in 1948.
Lake County Democratic Party chairwoman Nancy Hurlbert, who spoke against installing the general's statue, described the museum's tribute to the Groveland Four as "pathetic and insulting." The exhibit features a photo of only three of the four men and does not mention either the book "Devil in the Grove," which chronicled the case, or McCall, though he shot two of the four, killing one.
Gilbert King, author of "Devil in the Grove," which detailed racial injustice in Lake County at the time, was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
The four men were posthumously exonerated on April 18, 2017, by a resolution passed by the Florida House of Representatives.
No one addressed commissioners in favor of bringing the statue to the county.
Staffers Jerry Fallstrom and Lauren Ritchie contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-650-6361