Perspective: If Florida boots Confederate general's statue, here are some candidates to replace him

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston
Published Sept. 11, 2015

Amid the recent uproar over removal (and occasional reinstatement) of Confederate flags in Florida, somebody happened to remember what's representing our state in Washington, D.C.

No, not Congress. I'm talking about statues.

In the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall, every state is allowed two statues of prominent citizens to mark what that state has contributed to the nation.

One Florida statue clearly fits that definition. It's of Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola, credited with the first patent for an air conditioning system. Imagine where we'd be without that invention (not in Florida, probably).

But the second Florida statue is of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who was born in St. Augustine but otherwise had little connection with Florida. At the end of the Civil War, he was the last Confederate general to surrender. Maybe that's why, in 1922, Florida lawmakers decided he was Florida's best representative.

This was, after all, a time when Florida was swarming with bootleggers and rumrunners flouting Prohibition, gamblers involved in bolita and slot machines, and shady real estate salesmen ripping off gullible buyers who thought they would make a fortune on subdivisions that never got built. So perhaps sending to the U.S. Capitol a statue of a guy who rebelled against the United States was in keeping with the sensibilities of the day.

Now, of course, being represented by a Confederate general is an embarrassment. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has sent a letter signed by the other members of the Florida congressional delegation to the leaders of the Legislature contending it's time to replace Gen. Smith.

Last week, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz filed a bill that would do just that, designating a committee in the state Division of Historical Resources to select as a replacement "a prominent Florida citizen."

This is a tremendous opportunity, not only to right an old wrong but also to turn stodgy old Statuary Hall into one of the hottest tourist attractions in D.C. If we know anything in Florida, it's how to draw in the suckers — excuse me, tourists. Imagine if we got the Disney folks to make our statue animatronic, too!

So here are a few proposals for who could replace Gen. Smith:

1. Carl Hiaasen

Miami Herald columnist and author of bestselling novels about Florida wackiness. Clearly he's someone who the rest of the country recognizes as representing our state's ability to laugh at itself. I'm picturing a statue of a guyabera-clad Hiaasen astride a 12-foot alligator, waving a machete with one hand and a Burmese python with the other. That would definitely attract the selfie-stick hordes, don't you think? Unfortunately, Hiaasen has referred to the Legislature as "a festival of whores," so they might not be inclined to bestow such an honor on him.

2. Marjory Stoneman Douglas

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Author of the 1947 classic Everglades: River of Grass, chief protector of Everglades National Park and a fan of really big hats. I once saw her, not long before she died at age 108, standing in front of then-Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet and wagging her finger at them over something they had done that was bad for the River of Grass. A finger-wagging, big-hat-wearing, little old lady would be a great pose for a statue, but our legislators aren't that keen on pushy environmental activists these days so this one's probably out too.

3. Addison Mizner

Developer of Boca Raton in the 1920s and creator of distinctive Florida architecture described by his biographer as the "Bastard-Spanish-Romanesque-Gothic-Renaissance-Bull Market-Damn-the-Expense style." He kept a monkey on his shoulder named "Johnnie Brown" that once ran for mayor of Palm Beach (it lost). His statue could depict him and the monkey laughing at eager home buyers, and behind them stands Wilson Mizner, Addison's brother and sales manager, whom some credit with coining the saying, "Never give a sucker an even break." The Mizners definitely represent the spirit of what's become known as "the Ponzi State." But they were ruined when the '20s land boom went bust, and the Legislature doesn't like bankrupt businessmen, so they'd probably be rejected too.

4. Zora Neale Hurston

Author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Florida folklore collector. She'd show up in turpentine camps and phosphate mines miles from any town, claim she was a bootlegger on the run and thus convince the suspicious folks to take her in and tell her their stories. She narrowly avoided being killed in a Polk County jook joint -— and became the first writer to use the word "jook" in print. I'm picturing a statue of her with her head thrown back, singing along with a blues guitarist while also taking notes on his lyrics. But despite the lovely symmetry of replacing a Confederate general's statue with one of an African-American writer, I bet her devotion to the working class would make our many millionaire legislators reject her.

5. Osceola

Seminole Indian chief and military strategist who beat five U.S. generals and was captured only by use of a phony flag of truce. The Seminoles' own history describes him as "elegant in dress, handsome of face, passionate in nature and giant of ego," which sounds perfect for a statue. However, he did murder an Indian agent. Plus, the Legislature has been feuding with the Seminole Tribe over its gambling agreement, so this one's probably out, too.

6. Emory "Red" Cross

Legislator and judge. Cross, who liked to wear white suits as he strolled the marble halls of government, disliked secrecy. He found out some of his colleagues in the Florida House were using their connections to find out the route of highways and buying up the land that would be needed so they could sell it for a big profit. He sponsored the Government in the Sunshine Act, and fought for years to get it made the law. A statue of him kicking open some thick oak doors would be great, but probably the legislative leaders who took secret King Ranch hunting trips from Big Sugar won't vote for this one.

7. Dr. Robert Cade

Led the team of University of Florida researchers who invented Gatorade. They sparked the entire billion-dollar sports drink industry, not to mention the tradition of dumping a sticky liquid over the head of a winning coach (a great pose for a statue, by the way). But our legislators aren't big on science these days, so he's out.

8. James Weldon Johnson

Lawyer, diplomat, civil rights activist, author. This Jacksonville native wrote the landmark poem "God's Trombones," the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and the lyrics for "Lift Every Voice and Sing," dubbed "the black national anthem." His statute would have to depict him wearing a lot of hats, I think. However, one of his careers was as a newspaper editorial writer, and the Legislature has never given the time of day to any of those guys.

9. Bunny Yeager

Pinup model who became a pinup photographer. Bunny — real name Linnae — sewed her own costumes, collected lots of beauty pageant crowns and became the Miami photographer who first shot Bettie Page for Playboy, turning her into national sex symbol. While a statue of the statuesque Bunny snapping photos of Bettie Page would definitely attract tourists, legislators would probably shy away from honoring someone who was such a blatant exhibitionist. As the redistricting case shows, they prefer keeping things hidden.

10. Douglas Hughes

Ruskin postal worker who landed a gyrocopter at the U.S. Capitol to deliver letters to Congress protesting campaign finance laws. Sure, Hughes is still facing criminal charges from his protest, but who better exemplifies today's Floridians than this guy? He did something crazy and outlandish. He became the butt of late-night comics' jokes. Plus he figured out a way to get around a major city's traffic jams.

Yeah, I know. The Legislature (and its campaign donors) won't like his message either. Might as well face it, folks, they're probably going to go with Tim Tebow.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.