Nearly two years after rejecting requests to remove a controversial statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda, a state panel that promised to produce educational materials to help put the statue in historical context is only now beginning its work.
Raoul Cunningham, president of the state and Louisville NAACP chapters, said the delay is more proof that the state Historic Properties Advisory Commission’s decision in August 2015 to produce educational materials about the Davis statue and four others in the Rotunda was “just a way to avoid our longstanding proposal of removing the Davis statue from the seat of our state government.”
Cunningham noted that New Orleans has since removed its Confederate statues and other cities, such as Lexington, are considering the idea. (The fate of two controversial Confederate-era monuments on the lawn of the former Fayette County Courthouse in downtown Lexington is still up in the air nearly 18 months after an arts review board recommended the statues of John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan be moved.)
“We are talking about symbols of hatred that have no place in government facilities and represent an era that is long gone,” said Cunningham. “It has no business in our state Capitol.”
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He noted that swastikas are part of Germany’s history but the country no longer displays them in public buildings because they are offensive to many people.
The commission, which has legal control over state statues, voted 7-2 to keep the Davis statue in the Capitol, where it stands with statues of President Abraham Lincoln and three other prominent Kentuckians. Instead, the panel promised to set up a committee that would provide more historical context for statues in the Rotunda and educate people about their history, both good and bad.
“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,” former Gov. Steve Beshear said after the commission voted. “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.”
The chairman of the commission, Steve Collins, said the delay was primarily due to a change in gubernatorial administrations in December 2015, a new state curator appointed in February 2016 and only one meeting of the advisory commission last year.
When the commission met April 6, it discussed scheduling a committee meeting to begin work on the educational material. That meeting, Collins said, is tentatively scheduled for June 21.
“We want to get it where the commission will be meeting three to four times a year,” said Collins, who is the son of former Gov. Martha Layne Collins.
He said the educational materials will be produced at “minimal expense” and “as quickly as possible.”
Beshear asked the commission to consider requests to move 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 at a church in South Carolina and debate intensified over Confederate symbols in public places.
The shooter, who had an affinity for Confederate symbols, was convicted of murder and hate crime charges in federal court in December 2016 and last January was sentenced to death.
Cunningham said he doubts that educational materials about the Davis statue will do any good. “They won’t make it any less offensive,” he said.
Others, such as John Settles of Paducah, see nothing offensive about the statue.
“There’s a lot of madness in our country today by people trying to get rid of these statues,” said Settles, the state division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Jefferson Davis was a great American. Some of us don’t think he was offensive.”
Several commission members have agreed to serve on the committee and there may be more, Collins said.
So far, members include Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council; Kent Whitworth, executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society; Ron Sydnor, curator of the Jefferson Davis Monument at Fairview; and state curator Leslie Nigels.
The statue was unveiled in the Capitol on Dec. 10, 1936, during the first administration of Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler.
A Bluegrass Poll in 2015 showed that 73 percent of Kentuckians favored keeping the statue in the Capitol. Seventeen percent said it should be moved to a museum.