Jefferson Davis, the president of the slave-holding Confederate states, remains a “hero” in Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda.
A commission that oversees state-owned statues voted last month to remove a bronze plaque attached to a controversial statue of Davis that declares him a “patriot — hero — statesman,” but that plan changed Wednesday after questions were raised about the commission’s legal authority to take down the plaque.
Leslie Nigels, director of the state Division of Historic Properties, said in late October that the plaque would be removed in a few days.
Her comment came immediately after the Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted unanimously to remove the plaque because of its “subjective” language. The plaque is attached to a 15-foot-tall marble statue of Davis, a Kentucky native who led the Confederate states from 1861 to 1865.
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Nigels informed members of the advisory commission Wednesday that Robert M. Burnside, commissioner of the state Department for Facilities and Support Services, suggested to her that the panel “do some legal research to be sure” that it has the legal authority to remove the plaque.
She said the question has been turned over to the Finance Cabinet’s legal department, and a representative from the department will report to the advisory commission at its next meeting in February.
“We’re ready to do it at any moment whenever we get permission,” Nigels told reporters.
She said no one from the governor’s office has contacted her and that state lawmakers might have to ultimately decide the issue.
Asked whether the panel had sought a legal opinion about removing the plaque from Attorney General Andy Beshear, whose office routinely advises government officials on legal matters, Nigels said that had not been discussed.
The Kentucky Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy has threatened to sue if the plaque is removed.
In a resolution last month, the group said it “denounces the proposed state removal” of the plaque and supports the commission’s decision in 2015 to keep the statue in the Capitol and provide historical context for it and four other statues there “to perpetuate the memory of events and leaders that have shaped the commonwealth for succeeding generations of Kentuckians to come.”
Nigels said it has not yet been determined whether a new plaque will be installed on the Davis statue if the old one comes down. She said a larger statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Rotunda doesn’t have a plaque.
The Davis statue was erected in 1936 at the height of the Jim Crow era, when segregation laws proliferated throughout the South, with the help of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and $5,000 in taxpayer money approved by the state legislature.
The commission’s Rotunda Committee continued discussions Wednesday about what historical context should be added to the Davis statue, more than two years after it promised to create educational materials for the public about the statue. No decisions were made Wednesday.
Efforts to remove the statue gained momentum after the murders of nine black people at a South Carolina church in 2015 by a white supremacist.
Kentucky NAACP President Raoul Cunningham, who wants the Davis statue removed from Kentucky’s seat of government, has called removing the plaque an attempt to “whitewash the issue.”