The statues of Confederate generals John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge are bound for the Lexington Cemetery, and many smaller plaques and monuments have been removed as part of the old Fayette County Courthouse’s renovation.
Now that Lexington’s historic public square is a blank slate, what should be put there to memorialize the city’s rich history?
This is a conversation Lexington needs to have, and in a more inclusive way than it ever did before. To get the conversation started, I reached out to some local historians, artists and activists for their thoughts.
But first, here’s the lay of the land: Nothing much can go on the old courthouse lawn anytime soon.
The $30 million renovation project, which is nearing completion, was financed in part with $11 million in historic tax credits. They came with restrictions that require the square to be restored to its 1898 plan for at least five years. That means a grassy lawn, sidewalks, round concrete curbs and not much else, although the fountain will return because it was at least contemplated in the original design.
Cheapside Park beside the courthouse is free of those restrictions. But much of the park is occupied by Fifth Third Pavilion, which houses the Lexington Farmers Market, Thursday Night Live and many other public gatherings.
Cheapside, named for London’s historic market district, was Lexington’s longtime outdoor marketplace. In the decades before the Civil War, it became notorious as one of the nation’s most active slave auction blocks. That wasn’t officially noted until a state historical marker was placed on the old courthouse lawn in 2003.
Artist and teacher Georgia Henkel thinks it is important for new public art at Cheapside to reflect its role during slavery.
Henkel chaired an arts review board Mayor Jim Gray appointed in 2015 to recommend what to do with the Confederate statues. The board recommended their removal, but Gray declined until August, after deadly violence erupted in Charlottesville, Va., when white supremacists rallied against removing a Robert E. Lee statue. They were removed Oct. 17 after the state attorney general ruled Lexington had the authority to do it.
“We might consider opening up a national call for artists to re-imagine the space and it’s historical significance,” Henkel said. “The artwork needs to be much broader than a statue of a significant African American. It needs to represent a sense of history, healing and justice.”
“I believe ‘replacing the monuments’ should not be the issue,” she said. “The focus should be on the history of the place.”
Sculptor and bronze artist Amanda Matthews agrees that Cheapside’s role in slavery makes it “hallowed ground” that should be acknowledged through art. One option she likes is a symbolic sculpture honoring the Underground Railroad and other local resistance to slavery.
“This site should serve now as an example of progress,” she said. “Progress predicated on an awareness of the past that inspires change in the future.”
Matthews volunteered her services to help move the Confederate statues and has been a contractor on the old courthouse renovation. For several years, she has created and promoted public statues honoring notable Kentucky women.
But what about a broader recognition of Lexington’s history and notable people? Foster Ockerman Jr., an attorney and president of the Lexington History Museum, says that can get complicated.
Ockerman studied the issue two years ago and found more than 250 “public recognitions of people, places and things in Fayette County, from the town dog to the town drunk.” He thinks the old courthouse lawn’s markers and monuments should be moved elsewhere or be retired as museum pieces.
“I have come to the conclusion that it is about impossible to erect a statue to a person and adequately explain why and in what context,” he said. “For that reason, I would favor statues as art and not memorials.”
Ockerman points to a recent trend of statues that, rather than being placed on pedestals, are less formal and installed on sidewalks and plazas where people can interact with them and take “selfies.”
For example, Ockerman could see life-size statues of Abraham Lincoln and his Lexington-born wife, Mary Todd, placed on a sidewalk as if they were strolling up Main Street from her childhood home. Other statue candidates could include statesman Henry Clay, suffragist Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and scientist Thomas Hunt Morgan.
But there are cheaper and more flexible ways to honor great Lexingtonians and educate people about local history, Ockerman said, such as projecting images on the Phoenix Building’s blank north wall.
“We could recognize 1,000 people, places and things a year with that technology,” he said, adding that it could be part of an integrated plan for better using the mostly open three blocks of Phoenix Park and the new courthouses’ plazas.
DeBraun Thomas, a local musician, was an organizer of the grassroots group Take Back Cheapside, which skillfully pressured city officials to move the Confederate statues. He thinks some time and a lot of thought and public participation should go into what happens next in the historic public square.
Personally, Thomas said, he would like to see something acknowledging Cheapside’s role in slavery, the Confederate memorial movement and events that brought down the statues that movement erected.
But whatever is done should be the result of a broad public discussion with diverse voices. That should take place slowly, as Cheapside is given time to become a place where everyone feels welcome.
“I feel like the space needs to breathe,” he said. “After 130 years of Breckinridge standing there, it needs to have nothing in it for a minute.”