Florida Politics

A senator said a Florida Slavery Memorial would ‘celebrate defeat.’ Lawmakers are furious.

The Florida Capitol Complex in Tallahassee is where lawmakers propose building a memorial to recognize the significance of slavery and to honor the slaves themselves.
The Florida Capitol Complex in Tallahassee is where lawmakers propose building a memorial to recognize the significance of slavery and to honor the slaves themselves. kclark@miamiherald.com

House Democrats and members of the legislative black caucus are offended and irate after a conservative Senate committee chairman said Friday the reason he didn’t hear a bill to create the first slavery memorial in Florida was because he didn’t want to “celebrate defeat.”

“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,” Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley told the Herald/Times for a story that was published online midday Friday. “I have a discomfort about memorializing slavery. ... I would like to take it in a more positive direction than a memorial to slavery.”

His comments came as the House voted unanimously that day — with roaring applause — to build the Florida Slavery Memorial near the Capitol in Tallahassee. Despite the House support, the proposal stalled in the Senate because Baxley had what another senator described as a “philosophical objection” to the concept.

Baxley — the chairman of the Senate Government Oversight & Accountability Committee who is known for his conservative positions and supporting symbols of the Confederacy — never scheduled a hearing because he said a memorial recognizing slavery would be too negative.

“It was very perplexing to say the least but can easily be taken as an insult,” Rep. Kionne McGhee, a black Democrat from Miami and the sponsor of the slavery memorial bill (HB 27), said of Baxley’s explanation. “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 Herald/Times 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.”

But 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.”

Because the Senate version of McGhee’s bill was not heard in Baxley’s committee, Negron, R-Stuart, could try to bring the House-approved bill to the floor for a vote. Unanimous support from the chamber is necessary to do that.

Baxley earlier Friday wouldn’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 later Friday, he said: “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.”

“I love black people. I love white people. It’s not a racial thing with me,” he added.

Baxley, who was the author of Florida’s 2005 “stand your ground” law, is a descendant of a Confederate soldier and has defended the state’s Confederate past in a variety of ways during his time in the Legislature.

In 2007, he objected 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 2015, Baxley hailed a decision by Marion County commissioners to fly the Confederate flag at their government complex. 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 then.

Three years ago, Baxley also 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.

Baxley was elected to the state Senate last November.

House members earlier Friday overwhelmingly embraced McGhee’s bill for a slavery memorial.

“I am literally — and many of us in this room, we are literally 7,923 weeks out of slavery,” McGhee said in an impassioned speech on the House floor before the vote. “As we gather here at this defining moment in this Capitol ... 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.”

He earlier told reporters: “Florida represents the portrait of what America looks like and what America can be like, so when people come here and they see we’ve taken the lead on recognizing the contributions that were made by those that were enslaved against their will — in excess of 60,000 individuals — they feel comfortable knowing they’re in a great place.”

The Senate companion to McGhee’s bill — SB 1722, by St. Petersburg Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson — languished without a hearing among about 28 others assigned to Baxley’s government operations committee this year that also weren’t taken up.

Rouson told the Herald/Times 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 earlier Friday that language is “too loose and not directed at honoring the people we should honor.”

Recognizing — and apologizing for — past injustices in Florida have been prominent themes this session.

In recent days, the Legislature formally apologized to the children killed and tortured at a state reform school in north Florida, and also to the families of four black men wrongly accused of raping a white woman almost 70 years ago, who were then tortured, murdered or unjustly imprisoned.

McGhee and Rouson both said they’re talking to “the powers of the Senate” to get their bill enacted this year so the memorial can be planned and designed.

The Capitol Complex — which includes the current Capitol, the Old Capitol and adjacent office buildings for House and Senate members — already has several memorials on its grounds. Those include monuments honoring veterans, law enforcement officers and women and one recognizing the Holocaust.

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.

Baxley’s refusal to hear the Senate bill did not go unrecognized by the House.

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 … and I didn’t want it to be unsaid to know that we did the right thing.”

Herald/Times staff writers Jeremy Wallace and Michael Van Sickler contributed.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark