Kentucky Votes to Keep Statue of Confederate President in Capitol

by | August 6, 2015

By Jack Brammer

A controversial statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis will remain in the Kentucky Capitol rotunda.

The state Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted 7-2 Wednesday to keep the statue in the Capitol, where it stands with statues of President Abraham Lincoln and three other prominent Kentuckians.

The panel, which has no black members, also voted to set up a committee that would provide more historical context for statues in the Capitol.

Several Kentucky politicians called for moving the Tennessee marble likeness of Davis, who was born in Kentucky, to the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort or to the Jefferson Davis Historic Site in Todd County after nine black people were killed in June at a church in South Carolina. The alleged shooter had an affinity for Confederate symbols.

Gov. Steve Beshear asked the 15-member panel, which has one vacancy, to reconsider the statue's location. The commission, which is appointed by the governor, has legal control of statues in the Capitol.

"While many Kentuckians feel that it would be preferable for the Jefferson Davis statue to be in a museum setting, the addition of this educational and historical context is critical," Beshear said in a statement shortly after the commission voted Wednesday. "The generations to come must understand the enormous toll of the Civil War that tore apart this nation and the tragic issue of slavery at the root of that war."

Raoul Cunningham, president of the Kentucky State Conference and Louisville chapter of the NAACP, said the commission "whitewashed" the issue and promised that debate about the statue's location would continue.

He said legislation would be introduced during the 2016 Kentucky General Assembly to remove the statue from the Capitol and voiced pleasure that the two major candidates for governor -- Republican Matt Bevin and Democrat Jack Conway -- have said the statue should be moved.

The statue was unveiled in the Capitol on Dec. 10, 1936, during the first administration of Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler.

Cunningham also said he thought that a Bluegrass Poll released this week was a factor in the commission's decision to keep the statue in place.

The poll showed that 73 percent of Kentuckians favored keeping the statue in the Capitol. Seventeen percent said it should be moved to a museum.

Steve Collins, chairman of the historic properties advisory commission, said the poll played no role in his vote to keep the statue in place.

Collins, the son of former Gov. Martha Layne Collins and operator of a Shelbyville funeral home, said removing the statue was not the appropriate response to the shooting in South Carolina.

He said that if Americans really wanted to memorialize the people killed in South Carolina, "our time would be better spent on demanding the repeal of voter-suppression laws."

Also voting to keep the statue in the Capitol were David Buchta, Ann Evans, Craig Potts, Lee Waterfield, Gigi Lacer and Darren J. Taylor. The two no votes were cast by Clyde Carpenter and Nash Cox. Kent Whitworth, with the Kentucky Historical Society, did not vote. The other members were absent Wednesday.

Gerald L. Smith, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, said it was disappointing that no black person had a vote in the commission's decision.

"That was one of the most disturbing things about the whole process," he said. "It was reminiscent of the actions taken in the 1930s to put up the statue in the Capitol, only in a kinder and gentler manner."

Cox made a motion earlier in the meeting to remove the statue from the Capitol, but it died because no other member would second the motion.

Waterfield, who made the motion to keep the statue in place, said the statue provided an excellent opportunity to educate Kentuckians about their history, noting that the rotunda has statues of Lincoln and Davis in close proximity.

Cox said she supported more education, but the statue shouldn't be in a spot that suggested state government was honoring Davis' beliefs.

"The best place to educate anyone about Jefferson Davis is not in the rotunda," she said.

Collins said he didn't know how long it would take to set up a committee to develop educational materials about the Davis statue and the four others in the Capitol Rotunda.

One commission member suggested adding a statue of a prominent black Kentuckian to the Rotunda, but Buchta, the state curator, said the rotunda floor could not support an additional statue.

Wednesday's meeting drew a large crowd of reporters and supporters and critics of the Davis statue.

T.K. Cup of Lexington wore a tie displaying Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and said "it is great the statue will stay in the Capitol."

"I don't have any problem with educating the public about it as long as it is the true education," Cup said. "He was a great man."

Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans held a rally last month at the Capitol in support of the Davis statue.

The panel received more than 3,000 public comments about the statue. About 1,800 wanted to keep the statue in the rotunda and about 1,225 wanted to remove it.

The NAACP sent in more than 750 comments, and the Kentucky Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans submitted nearly 100 forms and petitions signed by more than 150 people.

Buchta said comments were received from a variety of elected officials, churches, organizations and citizens.

They included a letter from Louisville Urban League president Ben Richmond, who said the Davis statue "serves as a prevalent symbol and constant reminder to African-Americans and others of the past and present ills of our society."

State Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, wrote that the panel should keep the statue "in what I believe is a proper place, our Capitol rotunda."

State Rep. Terry Mills, D-Lebanon, said a more appropriate location would be in Fairview in Todd County, Davis' birthplace.

(c)2015 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)