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Reflecting on Lee as namesake on 127th anniversary of county's creation

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Every public artwork tells a story. Most of the public artworks in downtown Fort Myers tell tales about the town's early development. This is true of the bust of Robert E. Lee which sits atop a granite pedestal in the median on Monroe Street across from the Art League of Fort Myers.

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On this day in history in 1887, the governor signed into law a bill creating Lee County. It was Capt. Francis Asbury Hendry who led the move to name the new county after Lee, “a distinguished and laudable character whom the world has esteemed and delights to honor.”

Hendry was one of the leading citizens in the growing hamlet of Fort Myers, which at the time had less than 1,500 residents. Lee was certainly one of the most famous people in the South in 1887, and was even highly regarded in the North. Hendry was an admirer who’d fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

At the dedication of the Robert E. Lee Monument on January 19, 1966, FA’s great-grandson, Lloyd G. Hendry, shed light on the nomination process. “My great-grandfather made the motion to name that new county in honor of the South’s noblest son – Robert E. Lee. To that motion there was no debate – only instant and wild acclaim.”

Many of the town’s males were Confederate veterans. Appomattox and Reconstruction had not quenched the feverish loyalty and deep devotion of these men for the Confederacy’s commander-in-chief. It was in these times, and in this spirit, that Lee County selected and chose its namesake.”

Lee’s nomination was fitting, relates Lloyd Hendry.

“Lee county was born in a spirit of revolt and secession. Mass meetings were held; eloquent speeches around burning lighter-knot fires were made. Revolt was in the air. Old grievances were pulled out and rubbed raw anew." You see, this area split away from Monroe County after the Commissioners sitting in Key West refused to allocate funds for the construction of a new schoolhouse after a group of rowdy boys burned the existing one to the ground in an attempt to get out of having to go to school.

But the Monroe County Commissioners didn't just turn down Fort Myers' request for funds. They told the delegation sent from Fort Myers that if they were so careless as to permit a splendid $1,000 building to be destroyed by fire they didn't deserve consideration. "[And so,] resolutions were adopted and petitions were signed. And when the Legislature next met, Lee County was born.”

Of course today, Lee is viewed by many as a lingering symbol of racism. But it was not Lee’s position on race or even his successes and failures on the battlefield that Francis Asbury Hendry hoped the citizens of Lee County would remember 127 years later. “[My great-grandfather] spoke of [Lee's] iron integrity – his utter devotion to truth. This quality of Lee is legendary. [H]he spoke of Lee’s deep and abiding concern for his fellowmen. These are the qualities the man who named Lee County hoped the people of Lee County would emulate.”

To bring these concerns into the 21st Century, all that's needed is to apply these sentiments to all people, regardless of race, creed, gender or sexual orientation.

So that's why Lee was chosen as the new county's namesake. But there's so much more to the Robert E. Lee Memorial than just the naming rights to the county. To learn more about the bronze bust and the gray Georgia granite pedestal on which it sits, take True Tours' public art walking tour. For days, times and cost, please call 239-945-0405 or visit www.TrueTours.net.

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