Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has asked the Lexington Cemetery’s board to “help heal the soul of our city” by taking two controversial Confederate statues that have stood in downtown Lexington for more than 100 years.
In an Aug. 24 letter, Gray asked the board if he could speak at its Sept. 11 meeting to discuss the cemetery as a possible new home for the statues of John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. Vice President and the last Confederate Secretary of War, and John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate general.
The 170-acre cemetery off West Main Street “is the one location that generates support from those with opposing views on this issue,” Gray wrote.
The Herald-Leader obtained the letter through an Open Records Act request.
Mark Durbin, president and general manager of the Lexington Cemetery, confirmed Wednesday that the Confederate statues are on the agenda of the board’s Sept. 11 meeting. Durbin said he is waiting to get direction from board members about whether Gray will be allowed to speak at the meeting. He could not say how the cemetery board might vote on the city’s request.
James Kenan, chairman of the cemetery board, could not be reached for comment.
Gray’s letter and a second letter from several black leaders and ministers were delivered to the cemetery and its board members last week, city spokeswoman Susan Straub said.
In his letter, Gray said the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, other city officials and many residents think Lexington Cemetery is the best home for the statues, because both men are buried there.
“The Lexington Cemetery is a prestigious site, with beautifully landscaped grounds, that respectfully honors the Civil War soldiers who are buried there,” Gray wrote. “Notably, Fayette County’s two other Military Heritage Commission-designated Civil War monuments are located in the Lexington Cemetery.”
The Ladies’ Confederate Memorial was put up in the cemetery in 1874 after a five-year fundraising campaign led by Breckinridge’s wife, Mary. The Confederate Soldiers’ Monument was erected in 1893.
The Kentucky Military Heritage Commission will have final say on whether Lexington may move the statues of Breckinridge and Morgan. The two statues were put under the commission’s control more than a decade ago. On Aug. 17, the Lexington council voted unanimously to move the two statues from the lawn of the former Fayette County courthouse, which was once one of the largest slave markets in the South. The resolution gave Gray until Sept. 14 to return to the council with a new site for the statues.
City officials have been told that the military commission won’t grant the city’s request to move the statues unless it can find a suitable home for them. The commission’s next regularly scheduled meeting is in November.
City officials have previously said that they want to move the statues before the former courthouse, which is being renovated, reopens in 2018. The renovated courthouse is set to be home to the city’s new visitor’s center, a restaurant, and event and office space.
A letter from several black Lexington leaders to Gray backed the city’s push to move the statues to the cemetery. The Herald-Leader obtained that letter, which the city forwarded to the cemetery, through an Open Records Act request to the city.
“The relationship between the minority segment of the Lexington community and the Lexington Cemetery will undoubtedly be greatly enhanced by this combined effort,” the letter said. “The African-American segment of the Lexington community already claims affinity to the Lexington Cemetery because it is the final resting place of many of the luminaries of color from our city who went on to national and international acclaim, notably among whom are Mr. S.T. Roach and Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones Jr.”
The letter was signed by P.G. Peeples, president of the Urban League; Adrian Wallace, president of the NAACP of Lexington; and several ministers, including Rev. C.B. Akins Sr. of the African-American Education Coalition and Rev. Keith Tyler, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.
DeBraun Thomas, one of the founders of Take Back Cheapside, also sent a letter to the cemetery board urging them to approve the city’s request to take the statues. Take Back Cheapside has spearheaded efforts to move Breckinridge and Morgan.
“Locating the statues there is viewed as a positive compromise in an otherwise negative situation,” wrote Thomas. He said the cemetery “is our best hope” for getting approval from the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission.
Gray had originally proposed moving the statues to a new veterans memorial planned for Veterans Park in southeast Lexington. Pushback from some neighbors of the park and black veterans led Gray to scrap that proposal.
If the cemetery rejects Gray’s plea, it’s not clear where else he might try to move them.
Two companies, Prometheus Bronze Foundry and Duncan Machinery Movers, have said they will move the monuments at no cost to the city. The Blue Grass Foundation also has set up a fund to raise money for any additional costs associated with moving the statues.