TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign a bill that would lead to a statue of civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune replacing the likeness of a Confederate general as a representative of Florida in the U.S. Capitol.
The Florida House voted 111-1 on Tuesday to support placing the statue of Bethune in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, replacing Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, cast the only dissenting vote.
A short time after the vote, Scott’s office announced he intends the sign the measure into law.
Rep. Patrick Henry, a Daytona Beach Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he was “proud to be member of the House” as it was “poised to make history.”
Bethune, who would become the first African-American woman honored by a state in the national hall, founded what became Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and later worked as an adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Henry, who attended Bethune-Cookman, said Bethune is considered the “mother of the civil rights movement” at the university.
“Dr. Bethune was a revolutionary woman, she transcended race and social economic status,” Henry said. “Her life is an example of what happens when you refuse to accept failure as an option.”
The vote came with students from the university in the House gallery. The university has offered to pay for the statue.
The Senate backed the proposal (SB 472) in a 37-0 vote on Jan. 31.
Smith was born in St. Augustine but had few ties to the state as an adult. As commander of Confederate forces west of the Mississippi, Smith was considered the last general with a major field force to surrender. He has represented Florida in the National Statuary Hall since 1922.
Florida's other representative in the hall is John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning. Each state is allowed two representatives. The bill requires the Smith statue to be acquired and displayed by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
After voting against the proposal when it appeared before the House Government Accountability Committee in October, Fant said the Legislature shouldn't be involved in the statue-removal process.
“Messing with statues is a fool's errand for the Legislature,” Fant, who is running for attorney general this year, said at the time. “I don't think we should even remove any of the statues that we have, including the ones that they're moving to replace here. … It's one of those issues that I think truly creates division within communities, this whole statue-removal business, and I don't want to be part of all that.”
The proposal has also drawn opposition from a group called Save Southern Heritage, which was formed in 2015 in response to “knee-jerk Anti-Southern institutionalized bullying.”
The Legislature voted in 2016 to replace the Smith statue during a nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols in the wake of the 2015 shooting deaths of nine African-American worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
But lawmakers couldn’t agree last year on who should replace Smith. Lawmakers considered three possibilities --- Bethune, Everglades activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Publix grocery store founder George Washington Jenkins, Jr. --- submitted by a panel known as the Great Floridians Committee.
Democrats' demands for a replacement grew last summer after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly. A plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee helped spur the Charlottesville rally.