Museum curator plans to add statue despite public outcry
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 allwhite 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 seventerm 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. 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.
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.
A statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith could be moved from the U.S. Capitol to the Lake County Historical Museum.