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  1. Opinion

Column: Replace statue with more deserving Floridian

Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith was born in Florida but left as a child. His statue is one of two from Florida on display in the U.S. Capitol.
Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith was born in Florida but left as a child. His statue is one of two from Florida on display in the U.S. Capitol.
Published Jun. 23, 2015

Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith grew up in my hometown of St. Augustine. He attended West Point, becoming an officer in the U.S. Army. In 1861, when the South seceded, Kirby Smith found fame as a general in the Confederate Army.

After the war, Kirby Smith briefly fled the country before settling at my alma mater, the University of the South in Tennessee, where he became a distinguished professor. He died in 1893.

While never serving in Florida, he was easily the highest-ranking military officer who came from the state. And in 1922, Florida commissioned a statue in his honor to be donated to the U.S. Capitol.

Each state contributes two statues for National Statutory Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Florida's other statue is that of John Gorrie, who is legitimately one of the main reasons that today Florida is home to some 20 million residents and is on track to attract 100 million tourists this year (more on that later).

Gorrie's inclusion as a representative of Florida makes as much sense today as it did in 1914 when the state donated the statue. The same cannot be said for Kirby Smith.

First, Gen. Kirby Smith's selection is entirely as a result of his service as a general in the Army of the Confederacy. Now I get it — war is a tricky thing. People die for the right side and the wrong side all of the time. Frankly, in the fog of war, most die just trying to stay alive and protect their brothers and sisters. But say what you want about the valor of the Confederate soldier, Kirby Smith was on the wrong side.

Equally as relevant — he's hardly a Floridian. He left here as a child, never to return. His life had little impact on the trajectory of our state's history. His greatest impact, after his time in the military, was made in Tennessee. If Tennessee wanted to honor him in this way, that would make more sense. But Kirby Smith is as much a Floridian as I am a son of Illinois, a state I left at the age of 10.

Certainly, some will react to this by arguing that the decision to honor him is just part of our history, and that sure, in 2015 we would surely choose a different individual, but why make the change today?

Well, we've changed a lot of decisions from that era. Heck, the 1935 Legislature thought it was a good idea to build a ditch (canal) across the middle of the state. If all decisions from that era are infallible, it must be time to go finish the canal.

But times change, and people change. We are a vastly different state today than we were in 1824 when Kirby Smith was born, or 1861 when he became a Confederate general, or even 1922, when the decision was made to send the statue to Washington. In those days Florida was home to fewer than 1 million residents.

You could make a case for so many different men and women who are more deserving of the honor, like any of our 22 Medal of Honor recipients. You could go the route of leading Floridians like LeRoy Collins, Claude Pepper or Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Or we could honor someone like Zora Neale Hurston, Henry Flagler or Walt Disney, whose legacies have shaped who we are today as a state. Kirby Smith just doesn't fit into that echelon — and frankly, he never did.

In the same way that Jeb Bush was right in his decision to take down the Confederate battle flag, now is the time to send Kirby Smith to a museum. His life doesn't represent who we are today as a state, and shouldn't be the symbol of who we are in the nation's Capitol.

Moreover, replacing him would give us a chance to have a statewide conversation about our history, to highlight our greatest citizens and engage everyday Floridians in the selection process. And whoever is chosen would be a better representation of who we are as a state today — and bring a sense of pride to all Floridians, just like John Gorrie does.

Why Gorrie? He invented air conditioning. Yes, a true Florida hero.

Steve Schale is a Tallahassee lobbyist and a veteran Democratic strategist who managed President Barack Obama's 2008 Florida campaign. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.