Thursday night, P.G. Peeples told Lexington council members that for years he’d paid little attention to the statue of John Hunt Morgan that he could see from his office window.
But one day, the president of Lexington’s Urban League said, a young black man working construction nearby appeared at his office and said there was something Peeples must see. The man took him to the basement of the building where he was working. There, they found shackles.
Those shackles, Peeples knew, were used to bind the slaves sold above ground at Cheapside. With that painful image, Peeples said, he could no longer ignore the towering figure of Morgan in his Confederate uniform astride a horse in front of our historic courthouse.
Peeples was one of more than four dozen speakers Thursday who urged the council to do the right thing — as it did, unanimously — and vote to remove the statue of Morgan and one of John C. Breckinridge, a former vice-president of the United States who became the secretary of war for the Confederacy.
With that vote, the council and the community had come to the same awakening as Peeples: It isn’t morally right or historically enlightening to maintain heroic-looking statues of slaveholders who fought to maintain slavery on the very ground where humans were sold.
Lexington came to that moment through peaceful public discussion in which everyone who chose to had a voice. In a week when debate about race, history and free speech seemed doomed to end in vitriol or violence, Lexington gave the nation a welcome lesson in civility.
Although there had been calls to remove the statues for decades, the movement gained force in 2015 when the Morgan statue and a marker noting the history of slavery in Fayette County and the slave auctions at Cheapside were vandalized. A public arts review board recommended that fall that the statues be moved, but the city took no action.
That same year, a group of activists founded Take Back Cheapside to push for removal of the statues in favor of “a more full and accurate telling of our city’s history.” Organized and thoughtful, the group educated Mayor Jim Gray, council members and the community about the need “to align our city’s public markers with our more difficult memories.”
Many of its members spoke Thursday night and many more crowded the council chambers, overflow areas set up in city hall and the sidewalk outside.
The vote to move the statues gained momentum because of violent acts.
The 2015 vandalism occurred as the country reacted to the execution-style killings of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. by a troubled young man enthralled with the Confederacy, white supremacy and neo-Nazism.
Then Aug. 12, after a young woman was killed and others injured as neo-Nazis protested removing a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va., Gray announced that he would ask the council to endorse moving the statues.
But violence did not mark the debate in Lexington.
Through hours of testimony speakers were respectful, conveying passion, even anger, without descending into personal attacks or reckless slogans.
There is a long road ahead.
The city must find a new home for the statues and get approval from a state commission. There will be passionate debate about how to more fully and accurately interpret our history. Neo-Nazis may still come with their hateful message of white supremacy, eager to provoke violence.
Still, we should savor this moment, as people did Thursday night at city hall, on social media and in bars and coffee shops that live-streamed the meeting.
Usually such celebrations mark the triumphs of a few young athletes carrying our colors.
This time, the citizens of Lexington carried their own, true colors, and it was a happy day indeed.