Fayette County

New Orleans removed its Confederate monuments. What will Lexington do?

The John Hunt Morgan statue is protected from possible construction damage during renovation of the nearby former Fayette County Courthouse in downtown Lexington.
The John Hunt Morgan statue is protected from possible construction damage during renovation of the nearby former Fayette County Courthouse in downtown Lexington. cbertram@herald-leader.com

The fate of two controversial Confederate-era monuments on the lawn of the former Fayette County Courthouse 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.

Since the Urban County Arts Review Board’s November 2015 vote to take the statues down and have the entire square re-imagined, other cities including Louisville and New Orleans have removed Confederate monuments.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray would not say this week if he supports the removal of the statues.

“This is a decision that will be made as we finalize plans for the Courthouse grounds,” Gray said. “I am determined to find a solution that accurately reflects history, and equally determined to find a plan that makes our Courthouse a place that welcomes and represents all citizens.”

Lexington city officials told the board during its November 2015 meeting that despite considerable public debate and testimony, the work of the board and its recommendations were moot. The statues would remain. City officials said they had received conflicting information on whether removal of the controversial statues would hurt the city’s chances of receiving state and federal historic tax credits that will be used to pay for part of the $33 million overhaul of the 1899 courthouse building.

To receive those tax credits, historic elements of the 1899 building must remain. But state and federal officials have now assured the city that removing the statues would not jeopardize the tax credits.

“We have learned that because the statues were not original to the building, they can be moved,” said Sally Hamilton, chief administrative officer for the city who is serving as point person for the renovation of the former courthouse. “But no final decision has been made yet.”

The renovation of the courthouse is expected to be completed by the end of the year. It will become restaurant, office and event space. VisitLex will have its visitors center on the ground floor.

Mary Quinn Ramer, the president of VisitLex, said she’s concerned those statues may not be welcoming to the thousands of people from all over the country and the world who come to VisitLex each year.

“We want the Visitors Center to be a welcoming place for everyone,” Ramer said. “Obviously, those statues are a concern, and we look forward to a positive resolution.”

The debate on whether to remove the statues started after John Hunt Morgan’s statue was vandalized in June 2015 with black paint that read “Black Lives Matter.” After the incident, Gray asked the Urban County Arts Review Board, which reviews public memorials and art, to make recommendations on whether the two statues represented “the shared values” of Lexington.

Kentucky was a slave state prior to the Civil War, but it never seceded from the United States. The state was bitterly divided during the war, with soldiers fighting on either side. Both the president of the United States — Abraham Lincoln — and the president of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis — were born in Kentucky.

Morgan was a Confederate general and slave owner. Breckinridge, a former U.S. vice president and congressman, was expelled from the Senate after joining the Confederate Army. He was the last Confederate Secretary of War.

The John Hunt Morgan statue was dedicated in 1911 and paid for in part by the state and by the Kentucky Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The statue of Breckinridge, erected in 1887, was originally located in the center of what was then Cheapside Park, which is adjacent to the courthouse. Breckinridge was moved closer to Main Street to make room for the Cheapside pavilion in 2010.

History vs. history of statues

The debate over the statues is nearly as complicated as Kentucky’s stance in the Civil War. Kentucky declared itself neutral at the beginning of the war. After a failed attempt by Confederate forces to take the state, the state legislature asked the Union Army for help. By 1862, the state was largely under Union control.

The Urban County Arts Review Board spent four months studying the issue before making its decision in November 2015. It heard from more than 308 people either through email, letters, public forums or phone calls. In addition, it consulted experts in history, architecture and civil rights.

Those who favor keeping the statues wrote that moving them from the city’s front porch would erase Lexington’s history. The vast majority of people who wrote to the board opposed moving the statutes or asked that more accurate markers be placed on the statues or other statues be added to the lawn. Many of those that were opposed were form letters.

Another marker called the “Cheapside Slave” marker that details Lexington’s slave history was also vandalized in a separate incident after the John Hunt Morgan statue was vandalized in 2015. The board recommended that marker be returned to the courthouse square. It has not yet been replaced because of the ongoing renovations to the former courthouse.

James A. Ramage, a retired Northern Kentucky University professor who wrote a book about Morgan, said the general has been depicted as a “terrorist.” Not true, Ramage said in a letter to the board.

“Families all across Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio who met the raiders remembered the experiences as the single most memorable experiences in the Civil War,” Ramage noted. John Hunt Morgan’s statue was also supported by Union veterans at the time the monument was unveiled in 1911, Ramage and other letter writers said.

Other letter writers told the board that the monuments were erected 50 or 60 years after the conclusion of the Civil War. It was part of a larger movement called the “Lost Cause” that downplayed the brutality of slavery that the Confederacy fought so hard to keep.

That movement was about establishing supremacy over black people who were free but had few rights during that time.

“The Morgan and Breckinridge statues are not and have never been neutral representations of the Civil War past but instead they are embodiments of a racially charged postwar interpretation of it,” wrote Amy Murrell Taylor, an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky.

In addition to supporting John Hunt Morgan’s statue, the United Daughters of the Confederacy also successfully lobbied the Kentucky legislature in 1906 to pass a law banning the anti-slavery play “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from being performed anywhere in the state.

According to a National Register of Historic Places inventory of Kentucky’s civil war monuments, of the state’s 62 monuments only seven or less than 10 percent depict Union soldiers.

Yet, more than 100,000 men from Kentucky enlisted in the Union Army, while only 25,000 to 40,000 enlisted in the Confederate Army. Kentucky sent more black soldiers to fight in the Union Army than any other state but Louisiana, Murrell Taylor wrote.

So what happened?

By 1864, public sentiment toward the Union had changed, many historians wrote in letters to the board. Kentucky was one of only three states to vote against Lincoln that year. The state also continued to elect pro-Confederate governors.

Roadblocks ahead

If the city moves the statues, it must get permission from another state board that oversees military statues. That board only meets twice a year and its next meeting is in November. If the city decides to move the statues, it likely won’t have its application in until November, Hamilton said. In that application, it must designate where the statues will be moved.

In addition, the Lexington Urban County Council must also approve moving the statues.

The city has hired state historian James C. Klotter to do a report on the two statues. That report will also look at suitable final homes for the statues.

Hamilton said she approached the Lexington Cemetery about moving John Hunt Morgan and Breckinridge there.

But city officials were told the venerated cemetery had no room.

Another possible roadblock: the cost of moving both statues.

According to information on Breckinridge’s statue, the base and the statue itself weigh 25 tons.

Louisville spent $400,000 moving a 121-year-old Confederate monument that was on the University of Louisville campus. The U of L foundation paid for the move. Officials in Brandenburg — southwest of Louisville — volunteered to take the controversial monument.

It was dismantled in November and its move was completed in December, said John Karman, a spokesman for U of L.

New Orleans’ effort to rid the city of Confederate-era statues sparked debate, demonstrations and national headlines. On May 20, a statute of Robert E. Lee, the last of four Confederate statues and memorials, was removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed the statues’ removal in 2015. The New Orleans city council later approved Landrieu’s plan.

Landrieu has said the monuments paid homage to a fictionalized and sanitized version of the Civil War and to men who believed in and fought for the institution of slavery. Those men did not deserve to be put on pedestals, he said in a now widely publicized speech.

“These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” Landrieu said. “To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past.”

Development agent Holly Wiedemann talks about the offices and businesses that will be the tenants at the former Fayette County courthouse downtown on Main Street when renovation is complete.