Today in Florida, it's Robert E. Lee Day

This image from the Library of Congress shows an artist rendering of the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the front parlor of the McLean house at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.  [AP photo]
This image from the Library of Congress shows an artist rendering of the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the front parlor of the McLean house at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. [AP photo]
Published Jan. 20, 2016

Government offices do not close down. Children are still in class. Not even the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Tampa do anything special on Jan. 19.

But according to Florida Statute 683.01, this date each year is a legal holiday worth celebrating: Robert E. Lee Day.

Jan. 19 is the Confederate army general's birthday (today he'd be 209 years old), and Florida has recognized it as a holiday since at least the early 20th century.

This year, his birthday comes just one day after the country celebrated the life of Martin Luther King Jr., the man best known for working to strip away the aftermath of a war Lee led.

But this year Robert E. Lee Day comes amid a larger national conversation about America's complicated relationship with its Confederate past — and the symbols and monuments that keep it top of mind.

"Do keeping those monuments up remind us of where we've come from?" said Caroline Janney, a Civil War history professor at Purdue University. "Or do they continue to serve as antagonistic symbols for African-Americans in this country?"

Florida's official holidays include the birthdays of historical figures like Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and women's rights leader Susan B. Anthony.

Lee is best known for leading the Confederate army during the Civil War. He has no real ties to Florida, and his legacy — and cause — varies greatly depending on geography. South of the Mason-Dixon, it's not uncommon to hear that Lee fought valiantly for states' rights and embodied the qualities of a Southern gentleman. In the North, he is more often seen as a traitorous slave owner, the face of America's most unsavory cause.

Since June, when a racially motivated shooting left nine dead at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., Confederate flags and monuments have been pulled from government buildings and seals across the country.

Florida followed suit.

In July, the Hillsborough County Commission voted to remove the Confederate flag from the Frederick B. Karl County Center, where it hung for two decades. That same month, students from Robert E. Lee Elementary School on East Columbus Drive in Tampa asked the Hillsborough School Board to rename their school because it was offensive.

In Tallahassee, lawmakers haven't talked much about Robert E. Lee Day, said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, but she said they should.

"I think we all need to recognize all the people who were a part of making Florida what it is today," Thompson said. "But to elevate people in terms of a holiday is something we need to re-examine."

The Legislature, in session now, has taken a second look at other symbols of the Confederacy that remain in Florida. The Senate voted to change its official seal, which included the Confederate flag, and a group of lawmakers are trying to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, where it is one of two statues representing Florida.

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"Just as we're looking to replace that statue with someone who is more representative of what Florida is like, I think it is time we look at Robert E. Lee and Robert E. Lee Day as a state holiday," Thompson said.

Florida also recognizes the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, on June 3, and Confederate Memorial Day on April 26.

These holidays are not uncommon among Southern states.

After Reconstruction, former Confederate states "wanted to be sure the Southern side of the story was told," said Janney, the history professor.

As states, cities and universities across the country debate the presence of Confederate monuments on government properties and campuses, Janney predicts the debate about similarly themed holidays will come next.

"I hope we see more intellectual and civil debate about what these symbols mean," she said. "What does it mean to us as 21st century Americans?"

More importantly, she said, Americans need to ask themselves why they oppose certain symbols.

"Obviously Lee was a Confederate, but is the objection to him being a Confederate and a traitor to his country?" Janney said. "Or is it because he was a slave holder? And if it is, then what do we do with the monuments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?"

David King, commander of the Jubal A Early Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Hillsborough County, said his members have no plans to recognize Robert E. Lee Day. They never do.

"We all know what it is," he said. "We have never (celebrated it) around here locally."

They do, however, celebrate Confederate Memorial Day every year and regularly tend to the 30 feet high and 60 feet wide Confederate battle flag that flies atop a 139-foot pole along Interstate 75 in Tampa.

Rep. Edwin Narain, D-Tampa, chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and a co-sponsor of the proposed bill to remove the Confederate statue from the U.S. Capitol, said he sees Robert E. Lee Day as an irrelevant holiday, one that has been on the books for years but gets little acknowledgement.

"History has a way of fixing itself," he said. "I'm not going to chase his ghost and make him any more relevant."

He admitted he was surprised to learn the holiday is still official under state law, but added that "old, outdated holidays aren't hurting anybody."

"The law was probably passed during a very different part in our history," Narain said. "So the fact that we don't celebrate that holiday is more important than the fact that there is an old holiday on the books that celebrates the day of his birth."

Times staffer Michael Auslen and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Katie Mettler at or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.