Kentucky state officials dismissed an opportunity to thoughtfully review the statuary in the Capitol rotunda. The Historic Properties Advisory Commission agreed to establish a committee that would develop educational content for each statue. However, in choosing to retain the existing statues, the commission sent a message declaring who should be remembered and recognized.
Three months ago, this was not a subject for debate. But the racially motivated massacre in Charleston, S.C., revitalized a long-standing discussion on Confederate symbols and sites. For Kentuckians, this involved the rightful place of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
Davis represents the paradox of Kentucky history as well as the hypocrisy of those who shared his beliefs. The statues of Alben Barkley, Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay legitimize Kentucky's place in national politics, while Ephriam McDowell's presence honors his pioneer contribution to the medical profession.
Each of these white men was chosen by other elite white men and women who possessed the financial resources, political connections and influence to celebrate history in a manner which reflected a personal interest and educational background they genuinely believed was authentic and true.
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They were not interested in the research and writings of black scholars of the period, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson.
A 1903 graduate of Berea College, Woodson established the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915 and co-founded Negro History Week in 1926. Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University and co-founder of the NAACP. Woodson and Du Bois, along with other noted black scholars, published historical works that were factual, interpretive, inspiring and widely read. In one of his many books, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), Woodson wrote: "When you can control a man's thinking you don't have to worry about his actions."
Du Bois was known for his pen and powerful speeches. While he was not a Kentuckian, Du Bois addressed Jefferson Davis' national prominence. Speaking to Harvard's graduating class in 1890, Du Bois' subject was, Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.
He stated: "I wish to consider not the man, but the type of civilization which his life represented: its foundation is the idea of the Strong Man-Individualism coupled with the rule of might — it is this idea that has made the logic of even modern history, the cool logic of the Club. The Strong Man and his mighty Right Arm have become the Strong Nation with its armies. Under whatever guise ... a Jefferson Davis may appear, as a man, as race or as nation, his life can only logically mean this: the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole; the overweening sense of the I, and the consequent forgetting the Thou. This type of civilization which Jefferson Davis represented: it represents a field for stalwart manhood and heroic character, and at the same time for moral obtuseness and refined brutality."
More than half a century after the deaths of Du Bois and Woodson, the makeup of the historic properties commission is all white. No African-Americans voted how the rotunda would be defined and decorated because they were not a part of "the club."
There was no excuse for perpetuating the errors of the past. The swiftness of the process, decision and response afterward seemed to trivialize the entire matter. An issue of this magnitude should have involved a committee of trained museum professionals and historians.
Celebrating legacies which embolden one group at the expense of others conflicts with the democratic ideals the state Capitol should strive to represent. Future generations need examples of integrity and sensitivity, not arrogance and paternalism.
I believe state officials sent a disgraceful and demoralizing message by not properly addressing contested symbols of racial division and overlooking the ideals of the state motto: "United We Stand, Divided We Fall."