Confederate monuments have come down in Orlando, Tampa and most recently Jacksonville as part of a nationwide reckoning with public memorials that commemorate the Confederacy.
But if a bill becomes law, local leaders could be fined and even booted from office if they remove those monuments.
The modern usage of Confederate symbols is controversial as many associate such symbols with racism, slavery, and white supremacy, as the American Civil War was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, 11 southern states that left the Union in 1860 and 1861 in a conflict primarily over a long-standing disagreement over the institution of slavery.
State Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, is pushing the measure to protect monuments, including memorials to the Confederacy, and punish local officials who remove them. He said his bill is retroactive and seeks to restore monuments removed by local governments after Jan. 1, 2017.
“It is history, and history belongs to all Floridians,” Black said. “We have started tearing down statues and memorials for all sorts of things. This is cancel culture. What we are trying to do is right the wrongs of cancel culture as they have been expressed against our public art.”
Jacksonville mayor has Confederate monument removed after years of controversy
But state Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, said Confederate memorials were erected to “scare and intimidate the Black community post-slavery,” and local elected leaders and their constituents should decide whether the monuments remain standing.
“It is a horrible bill,” Nixon said. “It is meant to throw red meat at a base of voters at a time when they know it is an election year.”
Nixon added about the Confederate memorials: “We should not be uplifting losers who wanted to keep my people enslaved.”
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The proposal (HB 395), filed last November, prohibits local governments from removing monuments or memorials. Violators would be fined $5,000 or the cost of replacing the monument, whichever is higher. Elected officials who defy the state law could be removed from office by the governor.
Contextual plaques could be added if the director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, state historic preservation officer and the Florida Historical Commission decide they provide “a more accurate understanding of the monument or memorial.” Monuments could also be temporarily moved for construction but must be returned to their original location or “as close as possible to the original location in a prominent place.”
“It is the intent of the Legislature that the state not allow a historical monument or memorial to be removed, damaged, or destroyed,” the bill states. “Accurate history belongs to all Floridians in perpetuity.”
The bill doesn’t specifically reference the Confederacy, but it protects memorials for “any armed conflict since settlers from other countries came to what is now the United States.”
After years of debate, Jacksonville Democratic Mayor Donna Deegan ordered the removal of the “Tribute to the Women of the Southern Confederacy” monument, which had stood in the city’s Springfield Park since 1915. Crews took down the memorial early Wednesday.
“Symbols matter. They tell the world what we stand for and what we aspire to be,” Deegan said in a statement. “By removing the confederate monument from Springfield Park, we signal a belief in our shared humanity.”
In 2017, Orlandodismantled and moved a memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers from Lake Eola Park to a section of Greenwood Cemetery set aside for Confederate veterans. The 9-ton monument topped with a concrete solider known as “Johnny Reb” was erected in 1911 on Main Street — now Magnolia Avenue — before being moved in 1917 to the park.
Elsewhere in Florida, Confederate memorials in Gainesville and Tampa were moved from courthouse grounds to cemeteries. In 2020, former Republican Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curryordered the removal of a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier that stood for more than a century in the city’s downtown.
The Florida Legislature has also voted in recent years to remove symbols of the state’s Confederate past. In 2015, the Senate agreed to strip the Confederate battle flag from its seal. Lawmakers voted to replace a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in the US Capitol’s Statuary Hall with one of civil rights Mary McLeod Bethune.
Bethune’s statue was unveiled in 2022, making history as the first Black person to have a state-commissioned statue in Statutory Hall. Every state is represented by two statues.
Black’s bill includes a provision requiring state authorities to make the statue of Kirby Smith available first to Bob Grenier for free to display in Lake County. Grenier, former volunteer curator of the Lake County Historical Museum, pushed a plan to put the relic on display in the first-floor museum of the Historic Courthouse in Tavares.
If a suitable site in Lake County isn’t found by July 1, 2025, the state would find an alternative location to display the statue for free, according to the bill. The Confederate commander was born in St. Augustine, but otherwise spent little time in the state.
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Gov. Ron DeSantis has been mum on whether he would sign the bill protecting monuments. In November, he told reporters he wasn’t familiar with the measure and would need to review it. A similar bill failed to gain traction in the 2023 legislative session.
The removal of the Jacksonville monument wasn’t the only time this week that the Civil War made headlines 158 years after the fact. DeSantis’ presidential campaign was sharply critical of his GOP opponent, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, for not mentioning slavery when asked Thursday about the cause of the war.
As of January 2022, Florida had 77 Confederate memorials, according to The Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Whose Heritage?” project. Thirty-three have been removed since 1880, according to the report.
Lawmakers start their 60-day legislative session on January 9.
Most cities are removing their Confederate statues. Not Florida. Here, workers crane down the statue of American-Confederate general Robert E. Lee, a symbol of white supremacy, from its pedestal in Virginia. Bob Karp/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa