Monument Removals Targeted in Florida House

TALLAHASSEE — Controversial proposals that would prevent local governments from removing or destroying an array of historic monuments and markers are moving forward in the Florida House and Senate.

The Republican-controlled House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday backed a revamped bill (HB 395), which came after numerous local governments the past few years removed monuments to the Confederacy. In addition to prohibiting the removal or destruction of longtime statues and markers, the bill also would allow people and groups to file civil lawsuits over removals.

Bill sponsor Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, said there has been a “war” on historic monuments by local governments.

“Because history belongs to all of us, we need to learn, good and bad, from everyone,” Black said. “If we were to allow monuments to simply be purged from the land, then the day would come when people would say, ‘The things commemorated there never happened.’”

Opponents argued the bill is about protecting monuments put up decades after the Civil War to celebrate the Confederacy and white supremacy.

“I’ve never been more offended by a bill,” said Rep. Michele Rayner, a St. Petersburg Democrat who is Black. “And this bill is sending a message not only to Black folks in the state of Florida, but to your Black colleagues. Sometimes when the people who are the impacted folks are telling you something is impacting them, maybe we should stop and listen.”

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Democrats unsuccessfully sought a change that would have put the removal of memorials before local voters. Also, they unsuccessfully sought to exclude from the proposed protections memorials to people who owned slaves.

“Confederates, they abdicated their citizenship when they went against the (U.S.) Constitution, when they took up arms,” Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami, said. “The most-deadliest war was by a rebellious group of people who no longer wanted to be American. So, this is the most anti-American bill I’ve seen.”

The bill was introduced after numerous controversies in recent years in Florida and other states about removing historic markers, many honoring members of the Confederacy.

In December, Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan ordered the removal of a “Women of the Southland” monument that had stood as a tribute to the Confederacy in Springfield Park since 2015.

“What we see in Jacksonville right now is a calamity, where we have a mayor who’s gone off on a rogue mission to take down a statue,” Unity Project of Jacksonville coordinator Blake Harper told the House committee.

Under the bill, a local government could temporarily remove a memorial for military necessity, construction or infrastructure. In those cases, the temporary locations would have to provide similar visibility and public access.

The bill would direct courts to invalidate local ordinances on the removal of memorials and allow civil fines of up to $1,000 to be imposed on officials that allow the markers to be removed or damaged. It also would allow civil lawsuits against local governments and officials, with a cap of $100,000 in damages.

The Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee last week approved the Senate version of the bill (SB 1122). The bills do not mention the Confederacy.

The Senate version would be retroactive to Oct. 1, 2020, a date tied to the removal of a statue to Christopher Columbus from the St. Petersburg Pier District.

The House measure no longer contains a proposed requirement that a bronze sculpture of former Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith be displayed in Lake County or — if no suitable location is found by July 1, 2025 — anywhere else in the state.

The Smith statue, which spent nearly a century in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol as one of two representatives of Florida, hasn’t been showcased the past few years while it has been in the possession of the Florida Department of State.

The Senate bill did not include the proposed requirement about the Kirby Smith statue.

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