The Lexington council voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with a proposal to remove two controversial Confederate statues from the lawn of the former Fayette County courthouse.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray will return to the council in 30 days with a possible location to put the statues, backing off a previous plan to move them to a new war memorial at Veterans Park off of Tates Creek Road.
The vote came after a nearly 90-minute discussion in front of a packed council chamber that spilled into the hallways. Gray said that some in the community had urged him to look at other locations for the statues. Gray would not say what other locations the city was considering. Lexington Cemetery had previously declined the city’s request to move the statues there.
The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council is expected to take a final vote Thursday on the resolution. If the council gives final approval on Thursday, then the city will petition a state commission for permission to move the statues.
The Kentucky Military Heritage Commission has authority over the statues of John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate general, and John C. Breckinridge, the last Confederate Secretary of War.
City officials are asking the military commission to hold a specially-called meeting in September. Moving the statues without the commission’s approval is a felony.
Councilman Fred Brown tried to delay Tuesday’s vote, saying the council should spend more time discussing the issue. His motion died for lack of a second.
Councilman Jake Gibbs, a semi-retired history professor, said the statues are in his district and his constituents overwhelmingly want the statues moved.
Gibbs said moving the statues does not eradicate history.
“I don’t think they should be destroyed or hidden away but they do not deserve a place of honor,” Gibbs said.
Councilman Kevin Stinnett said he supports moving the statues but said he was upset Gray announced his intention to move the statues on Saturday — the same day one person was killed and dozens injured in a confrontation between white nationalists and counter-protestors over the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va.
The leader of a white nationalist group announced Tuesday that he is planning a protest in Lexington.
“They are coming to this community,” Stinnett said. “I think it puts the whole community in jeopardy… I think council was disrespected. I think we should have had a discussion.”
Gray has previously said he had planned to make an announcement about the statues Tuesday but decided to move it to Saturday because he felt public officials needed to stand up to racism, bigotry and hatred.
Gray said after Tuesday’s vote that he felt that he could not back away from his decision after Saturday’s events in Charlottesville. Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard said he has been in contact with Charlottesville police to learn more about what happened there. He’s also talked to Louisville Metro Police and Kentucky State Police. If national groups come to protest the removal of the statues, Louisville and Kentucky State Police have offered their resources, he said.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay defended Gray’s decision, saying the city can’t back down because of threats.
“The threat of violence should not keep us from doing the right thing,” Kay said.
More than a dozen people spoke during Tuesday’s council work session. A majority of them said they wanted the statues moved because they did not present an accurate portrayal of history.
Marilyn Dishman, who is black, said Hunt Morgan and Breckinridge fought to keep the institution of slavery and should not be put on pedestals for their efforts.
“How would you like it if your abuser was honored?” Dishman said. “Honor the Union people who stood up the for the rights of this country and who stood up for my ancestors.”
Others cited the fact that the statues are on the same ground that was once one of the largest slave markets in the South.
Supporters of moving the statues also noted that the former Fayette County courthouse is undergoing a renovation and will soon house a visitor’s center, restaurant, event space and offices. It’s not appropriate to have the statues at that location, they said.
A few people spoke against moving the statues. Ross Overby said efforts to move the statues were driven by outside forces, not local concerns.
“I feel like a lot of extreme voices are leading this discussion,” Overby said. “We do better by adding to history not hiding it. Confederate history is American history.”
Bill Swinford Jr, who spoke on behalf of the Breckinridge family, asked that Breckinridge’s statue remain. That statue honors Breckinridge as a statesman, not as a soldier, he said.
Swinford said if the council votes to move the statues, the Breckinridge family would like his statue to be moved to the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.
Jon Larson also argued that Breckinridge should remain.
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.
In November 2015 the arts review board recommended that the two statutes be moved. The statues, however, remained as a more than $30 million renovation of the old Fayette County courthouse began.
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.
It’s not known how much it would cost to move the two statues. Gray has previously said that they will find the money to move the statues. Offers of private donations have already trickled in, he said.