TALLAHASSEE — Some of the very legislators who made history last month by apologizing for Florida's slave history are showing persistent fondness for the state song that refers to blacks as "darkeys."
Black lawmakers, who have tried for more than a decade to establish a new state song, entered the session with an alternative song selected in a statewide contest and the support of Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.
But resistance from rural counties and their elected leaders, who have an affection for Stephen Foster's Swanee River/Old Folks At Home, looks likely to thwart the biggest push yet.
One Senate veteran who has the power to help the measure to the Senate floor predicts his committee will never approve the plan pushed by Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville.
"I think there's a wellspring of support for keeping the old song, but with new lyrics," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "With a new version of the old song, we can get rid of those racial and derogatory concerns."
But Sen. Al Lawson, a member of the black caucus, said that doesn't go far enough — particularly in light of last week's unanimous slavery apology in the House and Senate.
"After you go and apologize for slavery, you shouldn't have a problem removing all vestiges of discrimination," said Lawson, D-Tallahassee.
Lawmakers in 1935 passed a resolution — not a law — designating the current state song, The Swanee River (Old Folks At Home).
Stephen Foster, who was white, wrote Old Folks At Home in 1851 for a minstrel show. He penned it in a dialect that was supposed to be the voice of a black slave "longing for de old plantation," and he included a chorus that refers to African-Americans as "darkeys."
It was not intended as a song for Florida, as evidenced by the fact that he accidentally misspelled the Suwanee River. The first line read, "Way down upon de Swanee ribber."
Music historians say Old Folks At Home and My Old Kentucky Home, another Foster song adopted by a state, were attempts to humanize slaves. But today the "darkey" term strikes many as demeaning and insulting, and in 1986 Kentucky's General Assembly amended the lyrics to remove offensive terms.
Supporters of Foster's song say "darkeys" is not used in modern-day performances of the song. But the latest Florida Handbook still includes the original version of the song, with the offending lyrics. King said he will propose amending the state song by officially removing the racist lyrics.
"This is history," said Sen. Stephen Oelrich, R-Gainesville, whose district is surrounded by the Suwanee. "I'm not in favor of changing the song. Nor are my constituents."
But keeping the Foster song isn't likely to appease black lawmakers or Crist, who refused to play the song at his inauguration last year.
"I would prefer a change," Crist said. "I think Sen. Hill has worked incredibly hard to do it in a way that's respectful and that encourages a lot of participation."
Hill's bill (SB1558) would designate Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky as the official state song. Penned by South Florida elementary school teacher Jan Hinton, it was chosen through a statewide contest that drew nearly 250 entries during the past year.
The proposal almost died in the House last month, where Republican Ed Homan of Temple Terrace is the sponsor (HB825).
Going into the tourism and trade committee March 13, Homan said he didn't expect the measure to succeed. But the committee was moved after hearing the song and voted 6-0 in favor.
Yet the proposal barely passed out of its first Senate committee earlier this month, thanks to objections from three senators who say they've heard from dozens of people who want to keep Swanee.
Republican Sen. Charles Dean, a former Citrus County sheriff, said the song is especially important to his constituents because his district includes the Suwanee River.
Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, criticized Sawgrass as too "sophisticated" for children to sing.
Oelrich's chief of staff, Michael Preston, said the senator has received "hundreds of calls from people saying, 'Don't change the song.' We haven't had any calls in support of changing it. People have a sense of heritage with the song. They grew up around the Suwanee."
Hill has a different take.
"We keep drifting to the past, when we need to move forward," he said. "That's what this is."
King voted reluctantly in favor of Hill's bill at the committee earlier this month, saying he has great respect for the longtime Democratic lawmaker from his area. But King warned he's not likely to vote in favor of it again. That could spell trouble because the bill has to pass King's rules committee before it can go to the Senate floor for a vote.
"Tony Hill has fought the good fight on this," King said. "But I would be surprised at this point if we don't end up passing the old song with new words, at least in the Senate."
Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.