A group of concerned citizens led by Pastor Mike Watkins of the Friendship CME Church in Tavares are mounting opposition to Lake County accepting the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith that used to sit in the U.S. Capitol.
Last year, the state Legislature voted to replace the statue of the Confederate general with a statue of Mary McLoed Bethune, a civil rights leader who was the founder of Bethune Cookman University.
Watkins went before the Tavares City Council to ask them to pass a resolution rejecting the statue and told Florida Daily that, while he was born in St. Augustine, Kirby Smith had little to do with Florida. During the Civil War, Kirby Smith led the Trans-Mississippi Department and held commands in Virginia and in the eastern Kentucky-Tennessee theater. After the war, Kirby Smith worked in higher education in Tennessee. Watkins claimed Kirby Smith was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a charge that some historians and biographers who have focused on him have not leveled.
“To the African Americans, it is a slap in the face in the progress that has been made for someone to think that a Confederate soldier, that was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, that bringing his statue here would be a good idea,” Watkins said.
The decision on the statue really does not belong to the Tavares City Council despite the fact that Lake County’s Historical Museum sits downtown inside of the Lake County Historical Courthouse. The decision seems to be up to that history museum and its curator Bobby Grenier who told the Orlando Sentinel in June that getting the statue would be like getting King Tut for them.
Grenier has been meeting with Watkins and his group for more than a year in an effort to promote unity and community in Lake County but never brought the subject of the statue up.
“I believe Bob loves history. I believe Bob wants to promote the historical society, and I believe that Bob is just insensitive to other people. It seems like any means to promote the historical society, he’ll do whatever it takes. I don’t believe Bob is a racist, not one bit I don’t. I believes Bob means well, but I believe that Bob does not see the hurt that this will bring ,the division it will bring to our community,” Watkins said.
Historic artifacts and memorials often are placed in museums, including the Confederate flag that used to fly over the state Capitol until then Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Fla., moved it to a museum. Watkins agrees with moving the statue to a museum– just not Lake County’s or any other public museum.
“It could be in a museum, but it doesn’t have to be in one that the taxpayers own,” Watkins said. “There are private museums they could put it in. There are certainly things in the lease agreement that the county has with them that the artifacts should be from Lake County. He has no ties to Lake County.”
The county could withdraw its support for the museum but it only provides $18,000 each year in funding. Transporting the statue will cost $10,000 and is being paid with private donations.
Watkins says, in this case, censorship of the museum would be just fine.
“There’s some form of censorship always being done. They won’t put one of Hitler in there,” Watkins said.
Lake County could terminate its lease with the museum, effectively booting it from the historical courthouse, something Watkins will push for.
“They will have to own all the negative publicity, all the stuff that will come along with bringing that statue here. This is our Charlottesville. I guess,” Watkins said.
So far, the Lake County Board of County Commissioners has not scheduled a discussion of the statue but Watkins and dozens of others have already spoke to them during open discussion period during board meetings.
“The majority of the people want unity,” Watkins said. “Most of the people want to work together, live together, and raise our children and families together. That’s why I believe this city and county will do the right thing so that we can continue going forward and not bring all of this negative publicity to this county because we want to celebrate a Confederate soldier that was in the KKK. To me that is saddening that we would want to celebrate someone like that.”
After originally agreeing to house the Kirby Smith statue, for Commissioners told those speakers they no longer support having it in the museum. For Watkins, it is a reminder that not all has healed since Sheriff Willis McCall infamously arrested the Groveland Four in 1949 for the rape of a white woman. Three of the four were shot, two by the sheriff. Watkins asks how do people think African Americans in the community will feel if the statue is moved to Lake County.
Reach Mike Synan at Mike.Synan@floridadaily.com.