‘The time chooses us.’ Highlights from Lexington council’s vote to move statues
The Lexington council voted unanimously Thursday to move two Confederate statues that have stood in Lexington’s downtown for more than 100 years.
Mayor Jim Gray must return to the council in 30 days with a potential site for the statues of Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge and Confederate general John Hunt Morgan.
After a new home for the statues is found, the city will ask a state military history commission for its permission to move the statues from the lawn of the former Fayette County courthouse. There is no guarantee the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission will approve the city’s request.
Gray announced during Thursday’s meeting that Prometheus Bronze Foundry and Duncan Machinery Movers have offered to move the statues for free. Prometheus and Duncan have restored other notable sculptures, including ones in Gratz Park. In addition, a fund has been established at the Blue Grass Community Foundation to raise money for any additional costs.
Thursday night’s unanimous vote was no surprise. On Tuesday, the 15-member Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted unanimously to put the resolution in support of moving the statues on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting.
The council chambers erupted in applause after the vote.
More than 55 people spoke for nearly three hours before the council voted in a packed council chamber. Two overflow seating areas were set up to accommodate the large crowd, which spilled onto Main Street when the building reached capacity. Those outside held “Take Back Cheapside” signs and conducted an impromptu rally during the meeting.
Inside, the tone was civil and at times light. Lexington Police were in the chamber and the lobby.
“Cities have recognized the need to stand up and tell the truth,” Gray said. “We must be adults today. Enough. Is. Enough.”
Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard told the crowd the city has not received any requests from white supremacist groups to demonstrate in Lexington. Matt Heimbach, the chairman of the Traditionalist Workers Party, has said he is working with several white nationalist groups to organize a rally in Lexington. Heimbach has not said when.
Barnard said he and the city have been inundated with calls from people concerned about what they have read on social media about potential protests, much of it inaccurate.
“Downtown patrols have been increased to 24 hours seven days a week,” Barnard said. “We have plans in place.”
The public can help by not engaging with hate groups, he said.
“Don’t give any time to people that promote hate,” Barnard said. “Don’t show up downtown. That’s what they want.”
The overwhelming majority of people spoke in favor of moving the statues.
Herb Miller said the statues were erected during the Jim Crow movement to show white supremacy and silence black voices. Taking the statues down is not sanitizing history, he said.
“Leaving them in a public place of honor is also sanitizing history,” Miller said.
Carla Blanton, chairwoman of Commerce Lexington, said the business group supports moving the statues.
Lexington should be “open and welcoming” to all people, she said.
P.G. Peeples of the Urban League of Lexington told the story of when a young black man came to his former downtown office and wanted to show him something. The man was working on a building on the courthouse square. In the basement of that building, he showed Peeples what he found.
“It was a shackle,” Peeples said. “It was a shackle used to keep slaves before they were taken up to the slave market.”
That physical reminder of the number of black people who were sold at Cheapside Park was painful, Peeples said. The statues of Breckinridge and Hunt Morgan should not share the same ground as one of the largest former slave markets in the South, he said.
Only four people spoke against moving the statues.
Sam Flora, who is with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, encouraged the city to keep the statues in their current location. Rather than take the statues down, Flora argued the city should add a statue of a black Union soldier.
Burl McCoy, who agreed the statues should remain, noted that Breckinridge also was a vice president of the United States.
“I reject the idea that they were put up there to frighten blacks,” said McCoy. Hunt Morgan “was a leader of men.”
The vote comes less than a week after a violent confrontation in Charlottesville, Va., where one woman was killed and dozens injured when a man drove a vehicle into a group of counterprotesters who had clashed with white supremacists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue. President Donald Trump also tweeted Thursday — just hours before the council’s vote — that he was saddened cities are removing Confederate statues.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted.
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.
The Urban County Arts Review Board recommended the two statues be moved in November 2015 after four months of public testimony and debate. The statues, though, remained until Gray announced Saturday he would seek the council’s support to move them.
The former courthouse is undergoing a more than $30 million overhaul and expansion. When the building opens to the public sometime in 2018, it will be home to the city’s visitors center, a restaurant, event space and offices.
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.