Finally. We've begun a conversation in Kentucky about Jefferson Davis and whether his statue should remain in the Capitol rotunda.
One can only hope the John Hunt Morgan statue in Lexington likewise will enter the debate.
This opportune moment offers Kentuckians a long overdue chance to shake out some laundry that has begged for a good airing since the Morgan memorial — that guy on the horse at the old courthouse — received a hearty welcome to Lexington in 1911.
This moment offers the opportunity to re-examine our history and perhaps make a difference, not so much in academic circles but on the ground, where it counts.
Never miss a local story.
In Lexington, a huge crowd attended the unveiling of the Morgan memorial, quite a different scene from nearly 50 years earlier when the locals boarded their windows and doors against Morgan when they learned he was heading their way. People have short memories. Fifty years can turn a marauding horse thief into a hero. It happened here.
Morgan's 180-degree turn in memory is one of the nuances of our complex history in Kentucky. We have never agreed on the details of our history and the Morgan statue has not helped. It embedded in bronze the beliefs of the group that held all the power at the time the memorial was raised. And as part of the horse industry, this group held considerable influence and money — enough money to fund the casting of a man and his horse in bronze.
The memorial went up as a gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, with many of the women in the local chapter coming from families in the horse breeding and racing business. Their husbands also got involved. Lexington badly needed a dominant narrative, while attempting to lure outside capital to horse country. As the screw of history turns, the South had risen again, this time becoming popular in novels, stage plays and all things nostalgic. The Bluegrass region saw an economic opportunity in this, and embraced the notion of a Confederate, southern horse country.
It didn't hurt that parts of Kentucky, famously, had expressed great anger at the U.S. Army and the federal government during and after the Civil War. You've all heard the old saw: that Kentucky joined the Confederacy after the war was over. Whether this is the actual, unilateral and unadulterated version does not matter. The Daughters ensured it would be the narrative told.
The truly observant have always noted that the statue depicts a stallion, not a mare like Morgan's favorite mount, Black Bess. Horsemen of Lexington, who were to approve the design, objected to the statue's proposed gender yet the sculptor got his way. He insisted on a stallion because it would emanate power.
But the gender error was the least of mistaken notions portrayed in this memorial.
The statue sadly represents an era when some Kentuckians held other humans in bondage. Over this, they fought a war. Make no mistake: The Civil War was all about slavery. If you think otherwise, you learned an apologist's version of history, a lie as solid as the gonads on Gen. Morgan's bronze horse.
Read, for example, the declaration of secession from Mississippi in 1861: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest in the world."
With their version of history cast immutably in bronze, the Daughters hoped their take on the Civil War would be the narrative that citizens remembered forever, and most of all would teach in their schools. While the statue was being crafted in 1908, students in Lexington unwittingly experienced what was to come.
Their history textbooks portrayed Morgan as a horse thief. Superintendent M.A. Cassidy pulled the books from the schools, returned them to the publisher and demanded they be altered. Students subsequently read a flattering description of Morgan and his men.
Should we move the memorial or explain to future generations, perhaps with signage, that this statue represents but one view of our past? There lies the conundrum of any discussion about Confederate memorials. But at least now people are talking about it, mostly in civilized tones and with a genuine concern that the story be told right.