Fayette County

Lexington council wants statues moved. Meet the obscure board that could overrule them.

‘The time chooses us.’ Highlights from Lexington council’s vote to move statues

"We must be adults today," Mayor Jim Gray said as the Urban County Council voted to relocate two Confederate statues from the old courthouse downtown. Watch highlights from the council meeting and vote.
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"We must be adults today," Mayor Jim Gray said as the Urban County Council voted to relocate two Confederate statues from the old courthouse downtown. Watch highlights from the council meeting and vote.

Lexington’s leaders spoke with one voice Thursday about the need to remove two Confederate statues from the grounds of the former Fayette County courthouse, but the decision ultimately lies with a little-known state commission that meets twice a year.

The five-member Kentucky Military Heritage Commission must give its permission before the statues of John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge can be moved from an area known as Cheapside, which once was one of the largest slave markets in the South.

Created in 2002 by the Kentucky General Assembly, the commission’s members are a combination of historians and military personnel. According to the the commission’s website, the members are: Brig. Gen. Norman Arflack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs; Craig Potts, state historic preservation officer and executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council; Kent Whitworth, director of the Kentucky Historical Society; Col. M. Blaine Hedges, the director of the Commission on Military Affairs; and Brig. Gen. Stephen R. Hogan, the Commissioner of the Department of Military Affairs.

Laura Brooks, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said in a written statement Friday that the commission and its members could not comment on how it might rule on the city’s request to move the two statues. It has not yet received an application from the city, she said.

“To date, the commission has received no proposals for consideration,” Brooks said. “ Any requests received will be voted on by the commissioners once they have had an opportunity for review and discussion. Until then, it would not be appropriate for any commission member to comment about possible outcomes.”

Brig. Gen. Norman Arflack, a member of the commission, said he does not think the board has ever ruled on a request to move a statue.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County voted unanimously Thursday to move the two statues after hearing nearly three hours of public comments that were overwhelmingly in support of moving the statues. The resolution gives Mayor Jim Gray 30 days to return to the council with a new site for the statues of Hunt Morgan, a slave owner and Confederate general, and Breckinridge, the last Confederate secretary of war and a former U.S. vice president.

The city has said it must secure a new home for the statues before it can ask the state commission to approve the move.

The John C. Breckinridge statue in Cheapside Park on West Main St. in Lexington, Ky., Monday, August 14, 2017. 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. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

The two statues were put under the commissions’ control in May 2004, according to documents the Herald-Leader received through an Open Records Act request.

According to the commission’s website, a member of the public can ask that a statue, monument, battlefield or military object of historical significance be placed under the commission’s control.

Samuel Flora, president of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, filed a petition with the commission to put the two statues under its auspices in June 2003. Then-Mayor Teresa Isaac signed Flora’s petition to the commission. Isaac could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Flora spoke at Thursday’s council meeting, condemning white nationalists’ use of Confederate symbols. He argued the two statues should remain in their current locations and recommended the city add a commemoration of its Union past and the contribution of black soldiers.

“Erect a statue of a black Union soldier,” Flora said.

According to the board’s website, once a statue, monument or battlefield is put under its control, altering or moving it without the commission’s consent can result in criminal charges.

“Once accepted to the registry, these sites and objects by law cannot be damaged or destroyed, removed or significantly altered, other than for repair or renovation, without the written consent of the commission,” the website says. “Failure to do so is a Class A misdemeanor for the first offense and a Class D felony for each subsequent offense.”

The commission oversees 27 statues, memorials or battlefields, according to a listing on its website. That is just over 11 percent of the 230 identified war memorials, monuments and battlefields in Kentucky.

According to a National Register of Historic Places inventory of Kentucky’s Civil War monuments, only seven of the state’s 62 monuments — or less than 10 percent — depict Union soldiers. More than 100,000 men from Kentucky enlisted in the Union Army, while only 25,000 to 40,000 enlisted in the Confederate Army, historical records show.

The next-regularly scheduled meeting of the commission is in November. The city has said if a new home for the statues is found soon, it may ask the commission for a specially-called meeting in September.

City officials have previously said they want to make sure the fate of the statues is decided before the newly-renovated courthouse opens sometime in 2018. Tenants for the renovated building include the city’s visitor’s center, a restaurant, event space and offices.

Wherever the statues wind up, it appears no tax dollars will be used to move them.

The overflow crowd inside Lexington city hall erupted in cheers after the Urban County Council voted unanimously to move two Confederate statues from the old courthouse downtown.

Gray announced during Thursday’s meeting that two contractors — Prometheus Bronze Foundry and Duncan Machinery Movers — have said they will move the statues for free. Blue Grass Community Foundation also has set up a fund to raise money to move the statues if needed.

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.

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