Mayor Jim Gray said Saturday he is taking steps to remove two controversial Confederate-era statues from the lawn of the former Fayette County Courthouse on Main Street.
Gray’s announcement came the same day as multiple people were killed and injured in Virginia after a vehicle drove into counter-protesters who had clashed with white nationalists around a Confederate-era statue in Charlottesville.
Gray said in a statement he will ask the Lexington-Fayette County Urban County Council at its Tuesday work session to take the first step — to ask a state military commission for permission to take down the statues of John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge. Gray said the vote was already in the works.
“We have thoroughly examined this issue, and heard from many of our citizens,” Gray said in a statement. “The tragic events in Charlottesville today have accelerated the announcement I intended to make next week.”
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The Urban County Council will be asked to vote to support a petition to the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission to move the statues to Veterans Park. The commission must approve the removal of the statues. The city has been warned the commission would not green light moving the statues unless it found a new home for Hunt Morgan and Breckinridge.
Veterans Park off of Tates Creek Road is owned by the city.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay said late Saturday he has not spoken to all council members but said he expected the 15-member council to support the petition.
“I think this is a good solution and the right thing to do,” Kay said. “I think moving the statues to Veterans Park will allow the city to still honor history. But we will also be able to add additional signage to give the statues the appropriate context and explain how they came to be and what was going on in Lexington at that time.”
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 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.
The debate on whether to remove the statues started after 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. The board recommended in November 2015 that the statues of Breckinridge and Hunt Morgan be removed.
But the statues remained.
First, city officials said they had received conflicting information on whether removal of the statues would hurt the city’s chances of receiving state and federal historic tax credits that will be used to pay part of the $33 million overhaul of the 1899 courthouse building. To receive tax credits, historic elements of the 1899 structure must remain. State and federal officials later told the city that removing the statues would not jeopardize the tax credits.
Then the city was told the military commission must approve the removal. But the city had to find a suitable home.
Gray would not say in December if he supported moving the statues but said he was looking at several options.
“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.”
When the courthouse renovation is completed it will house VisitLex, the visitor’s center, a restaurant, event space and office space.
Besides getting the approval of the military commission, the city would also have to find the money to pay for the two large and very heavy statues to be moved.
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.
Kay said if the council supports Gray’s petition to move the statues to Veterans Park, he’s confident the cost won’t keep the statues from being moved.
“We’ll find the money. This needs to be done.”