Meet the descendant of a Confederate soldier who is blocking Florida's first slavery memorial

Sen. Dennis Baxley, seen here in 2007. [Tampa Bay Times]
Sen. Dennis Baxley, seen here in 2007. [Tampa Bay Times]
Published April 29, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — A proposal to create the first slavery memorial in Florida unanimously passed the state House on Friday with roaring applause — but its prospects in the Senate are uncertain after one committee chairman stalled the legislation over a "philosophical objection" to the concept.

Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley — the chairman of the Senate Government Oversight & Accountability Committee to which the bill was assigned — never scheduled a hearing to consider the bill calling for a Florida Slavery Memorial near the Capitol in Tallahassee.

Baxley, who is known for supporting the display of symbols honoring his Confederate heritage, said Friday he wants "to celebrate people. I don't want to celebrate defeat." He said a memorial recognizing slavery would be too negative.

"I would rather celebrate overcoming the heartbreak of slavery. I wouldn't want to build a memorial to child abuse. I wouldn't want to build a memorial to sexual abuse," Baxley said. "I have a discomfort about memorializing slavery. … I would like to take it in a more positive direction than a memorial to slavery."

Baxley's comments were criticized by members of the black caucus, including the House sponsor of the bill.

"It was very perplexing to say the least but can easily be taken as an insult," Rep. Kionne McGhee, a black Democrat from Miami. "His verbiage — if I were to read it as is — without an immediate clarification, it is borderline racism."

McGhee said he was "highly offended" and demanded Baxley clarify what he meant by "celebrate defeat" and by equating slavery to sexual or child abuse. "His statements have no place in today's society as it relates to race relations," said McGhee, who will be the House Democratic leader in 2018.

Baxley later told the Times/Herald that by "defeat" he really meant "adversity."

"I could have used the wrong word, but what I mean by that is: Rather than celebrate adversity, I'd rather celebrate the overcomers of that adversity," he said Friday evening. He added later: "I certainly mean no insult, and I certainly apologize if anything comes across like that."

McGhee said late Friday: "His clarification makes it even worse."

"While I do not personally believe he is a racist, I do believe his words were offensive, and his words go against everything this institution stands for," McGhee said.

"Either the Senate President (Joe Negron) has to step in and remedy this situation, or we deal with it on another level — a level I'm prepared to take it to," McGhee added. When asked what that might be, he said: "We'll let the people decide ... and I'll let the people voice their opinions of how they feel about it to the Senate."

Earlier on Friday, McGhee's mood was celebratory as the House overwhelmingly embraced the slavery memorial.

"This is perhaps one of the most joyous moments in my life to know that the journeys that my forefathers went through were not lost," said McGhee on the House floor before the vote.

Prior to the floor vote, Kionne and Coral Springs Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz both thanked House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, for supporting the measure.

"We're hearing this bill, and there are issues obviously in the other chamber where this bill sits," Moskowitz said. "I didn't want that to be unsaid."

The bill, as well as a Senate companion sponsored by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, directs the state Department of Management Services to develop a design and cost-estimate for a formal slavery memorial in Tallahassee.

But it looks likely to fail in the Senate because of Baxley. Rouson told the Times/Herald that Baxley, specifically, had "some philosophical objection" to the proposal.

McGhee and Rouson's legislation calls for lawmakers "to recognize the fundamental injustices, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery" — but also "to honor the nameless and forgotten men, women and children who have gone unrecognized for their undeniable and weighty contributions to the United States."

Baxley said that language is "too loose and not directed at honoring the people we should honor."

Because Rouson's bill never had a hearing in the Senate, the fate of HB 27 now hinges on a rare procedural override that Negron, R-Stuart, could try to execute.

As with any bill that passes only one chamber, the presiding officer of the other chamber — in this case, Negron — could bring the House-approved bill to the floor or route it to a Senate committee first for swift consideration before the scheduled end of session on May 5.

Negron was not available for comment Friday.

His spokeswoman, Katie Betta, said because the Senate bill wasn't heard in committee, bringing the House bill to the floor would require unanimous support from the 40-member chamber.

Baxley won't say whether he would object if Negron tried to send HB 27 straight to the floor.

"I don't control the agenda," he said, but added: "It's kind of late in the game when it hasn't been heard in any committee over here."

But later Friday, after learning of McGhee's objections, Baxley sounded a different tune.

"I love the [bill] sponsors. I'm not standing in their way if they find some way they can do this. I'm not on a campaign to stop it," Baxley said. "I love black people. I love white people. It's not a racial thing with me."

Perhaps better known as the author of the 2005 "stand your ground" Florida law, Baxley has a well-earned reputation as one of the Confederacy's top legislative defenders.

A descendant of a Confederate soldier, Baxley objected in 2007 when lawmakers discussed changing the state song, including the removal of "darkeys" from the chorus.

"It just seems in this age of multiculturalism we can celebrate everyone's culture but mine," he said then, when he was a state representative.

In 2014, he fought against adding a memorial to fallen Union soldiers to the same patch of land inside the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park that held three monuments honoring Confederate soldiers.

"My biggest concern is that this is revisionist history and that these decisions are being made by park officials and not an elected body," Baxley told the New York Times.

In 2015, Baxley hailed a decision by Marion County commissioners to fly the Confederate flag at their government complex.

"We are all exposed to messages and symbols that may not connect for us, but we should all honor our ancestors and protect free expression," Baxley said.

Later that year, Baxley opposed a bill in the House that would ban the display of Confederate flags on state and local government property.

"It's unfortunate that we've gotten tied up in this discussion of cultural cleansing," he told the News Service of Florida.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this story. Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark