Fayette County

Meet the man who convinced Lexington to move its Confederate statues

DeBraun Thomas, one of the co-founders of Take Back Cheapside, stood next to explanatory text in the Fifth Third Bank Pavilion at Cheapside Park in Lexington, Ky., Monday, December 18, 2017. Take Back Cheapside is a group that successfully helped persuade the city to move two Confederate-era statues this fall. The text tells about slavery in Fayette County. Cheapside was known as a large slave market before the Civil War.
DeBraun Thomas, one of the co-founders of Take Back Cheapside, stood next to explanatory text in the Fifth Third Bank Pavilion at Cheapside Park in Lexington, Ky., Monday, December 18, 2017. Take Back Cheapside is a group that successfully helped persuade the city to move two Confederate-era statues this fall. The text tells about slavery in Fayette County. Cheapside was known as a large slave market before the Civil War. cbertram@herald-leader.com

DeBraun Thomas paced the first floor of Mayor Jim Gray’s office on the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 11.

Several hours earlier, Thomas, Gray and others had attended a private board meeting of the Lexington Cemetery. They had pleaded with the group to make room in the nationally known cemetery for Confederate-era statues of John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan.

The board said it would get back to them with a decision later that day.

If the board balked, Lexington would have to find another home for Breckinridge, a former U.S. Vice President and the last Confederate Secretary of War, and Hunt Morgan, a former Confederate General.

“We sat and ate a lot of chocolate,” Thomas said.

Then the call finally came: the board had tentatively agreed to take the statues.

“We hugged,” he said.

For Thomas, getting the two statues moved from the front lawn of the old Fayette County courthouse on Main Street was an 18-month odyssey that started with peaceful protests in the summer of 2016 and ended with the 28-year-old musician inside city hall, helping craft and shape a strategy to get the statues moved.

The sometimes reluctant face of the Take Back Cheapside movement not only convinced city leaders the statues should go but now has many fans inside city hall, including Gray.

“Lexington has showed the nation a path to a respectful resolution of a difficult issue, and DeBraun Thomas helped us every step of the way. He calmly and persistently helped our city do the right thing,” Gray said. “ DeBraun is the kind of leader our city needs.”

What made Take Back Cheapside so effective wasn’t just what they did, but how they did it, said Sally Hamilton, the city’s chief administrative officer, and Geoff Reed, Gray’s chief of staff.

“They were persistent but they were also patient. They were professional and laid out their case using facts,” Hamilton said. “We were all very impressed.”

‘A lot of tension’

But the journey to get the statues moved was far from easy.

A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Thomas moved to Lexington to attend the University of Kentucky, majoring in journalism. His family’s roots are in Kentucky. His mother is originally from Adair County and other members of his family had attended UK.

He started guitar lessons at age 14 and hasn’t stopped playing since. A high school teacher told him Sly Stone, front man for Sly and the Family Stone, started in radio, so Thomas followed in his hero’s footsteps and began working at WUKY during college. He currently hosts a Saturday night program called “Crunkadelic Funk Show.”

“There were times where I worked five different jobs,” Thomas said.

But it’s his guitar and music that has largely paid his bills. Thomas released his first album in 2015, called “All My Colors Are Blind.”

“Then I broke my finger,” he said, making it impossible to play gigs to promote the album.

DeBraun Thomas released his first album, “All My Colors are Blind,” in 2005 Rich Copley rcopley@herald-leader.com

It was around that time Gray had asked the Urban County Arts Review Board to determine whether the statues of Breckinridge and Hunt Morgan should remain in front of the old courthouse. The review was prompted in part when vandals spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the base of the Hunt Morgan statue in July 2015.

Thomas attended two meetings at the Carnegie Center for Learning about the statues.

“There was a lot of tension,” he said. “There were clearly white nationalists there … But there were also a lot of people who thought the statues should come down.”

In November 2015, the review board recommended removing the statues. But city officials told the board at its meeting in January that Gray had decided the statues would remain.

The courthouse was about to undergo a more than $30 million renovation that would be paid for in part using historic tax credits. City officials said they were not sure if moving the statues was allowed if the city used the historic tax credits. (They later determined the statues were not original to the courthouse and could be moved without jeopardizing the historic tax credits.)

People who wrote letters to the arts review board were overwhelmingly in support of keeping the statues. Yet, Thomas said he talked to many, many people who thought the two statues should be moved.

“The difference was the other side was organized,” Thomas said of the letter-writing campaign to the arts review board. “We weren’t.”

Few black people attended the board’s meetings, he said.

Not about ‘destroying history’

It was later in 2016, at the album release party of his friend and fellow musician Russell Allen, that the two decided to do more than just complain. They formed Take Back Cheapside.

“We started with a flash mob demonstration at Thursday Night Live,” said Thomas, referencing the weekly concert at Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside Park, near where the two statues were located. Next, they started demonstrating Saturday mornings at the Lexington Farmers Market, which is also on the grounds of the former courthouse.

“They were nice,” Thomas said. “They eventually just gave us a booth.”

They began to collect signatures and educate the public on why Breckinridge and Hunt Morgan should be moved. Cheapside was once a slave market. It wasn’t right to honor two men who fought to keep slavery on the same ground that was once one of the largest slave markets in the South, they argued.

“We never advocated to destroy the statues,” Thomas said. “This wasn’t about destroying history.”

They then asked to meet with Hamilton and other city leaders.

Thomas’ mother has spent 32 years working in city government, so he began his talks with the city knowing that government was a process.

“We laid out our case and then told them we would be back in 30 days,” Thomas said.

There were several meetings between members of Take Back Cheapside and Gray, Hamilton and other city officials in late 2016 and 2017.

“They told us that to move the statues, there was a process. They had to go to the city council. Then they may have to go to the (Kentucky Military Heritage Commission) to get approval,” Thomas said.

About two weeks before a clash between white nationalists and counter protesters turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., Thomas got a call from a Lexington council member. Straw polling of the 15-member council showed there was enough support to move the statues to a different location.

“It was no longer a matter of if, it was a matter of when,” Thomas said. “We had been talking to several council members during this time to figure out if we had the votes.”

Then on Saturday, Aug. 12, after the bloody violence in Charlottesville, Gray announced he would ask the council to move the statues. Thomas got the call about an hour before Gray’s announcement and the mayor used some of Take Back Cheapside’s arguments when explaining why he wanted to move the statues.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council would take its first vote just a few days later on Tuesday, Aug. 15. Allen, Thomas and other members of Take Back Cheapside took to social media, encouraging people who thought the statues should be moved to attend the Tuesday afternoon meeting.

It worked. People overwhelmingly spoke in favor of moving the statues and there were no raised voices or protests.

‘Then we saw something’

Online, though, people began to attack Thomas and Allen, who had given interviews to local and national media.

That Thursday, the council was expected to take its final vote.

“It was one of the hardest days of my life,” Thomas recalled.

He did an interview with MSNBC that morning, “then we saw something” that caused him alarm, Thomas said.

Thomas did not provide details about what he saw.

“I spent most of that day just on the move, driving around Lexington,” he said.

Thomas and Allen weren’t sure if they should attend the council meeting, but ultimately decided to go.

“I just had to make my peace with whatever happened, I would be OK with that,” Thomas said.

Again, people overwhelmingly spoke in favor of moving the statues. There were no protests and the council voted unanimously to move the statues.

DeBraun Thomas, of Lexington, Ky., center, with the group Take Back Cheapside reacts after the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council unanimously voted on a proposal to move two Confederate-era statues from downtown Lexington at the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Center in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Thomas praised the help he got from other organizers during what he said was a very scary time.

“Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard also took the issue very seriously,” he said.

Reed, Gray’s chief of staff, credits Thomas for ensuring the debate over the statues did not turn violent.

“He has the respect of other organizers and the community,” Reed said.

‘The power of the people’

Although the council’s unanimous vote to move the statues was a victory, it was just the first step.

The monuments were under the purview of the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission, which had ultimate say on whether they could be moved.

Gray had originally proposed moving the statues to Veterans Park in southwest Lexington, but was met with swift opposition. It seemed everyone agreed, though, that Lexington Cemetery was an appropriate location, since both men are buried there and the cemetery has sections for Confederate and Union soldiers.

But the cemetery board first had to give its blessing. The board gave its tentative approval Sept. 11, but the deal was not finalized and approved by the council until late November.

Meanwhile, the city asked Attorney General Andy Beshear for a legal opinion on whether a 2003 application to put the statues under the purview of the military heritage commission was legal. The application had been signed by then-Mayor Teresa Isaac but was never approved by the Lexington council.

On Oct. 17, Beshear ruled the military commission had no authority over the statues because the application was invalid. Later that same evening, with no advance warning, workers removed the two statues and put them in storage.

The John C. Breckinridge statue was removed from the lawn of the old Fayette County courthouse on West Main St. in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, October 17, 2017. The statue of Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan on his horse were moved to a private storage facility until the city finalizes details of an agreement with the Lexington Cemetery. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

Thomas and Allen were there.

“There were plenty of people that said we were crazy and that nobody was going to listen to us,” Thomas said in a live Facebook broadcast that night. “This is what happens when the power of the people stand together. Take this moment right now, Lexington, and enjoy it.”

Some have asked Thomas and Allen to consider running for an elected office, but Thomas said that is not in his immediate future.

A second album is in the works. He wants to concentrate on his band, the DeBraun Thomas Trio.

“I definitely have a lot of material to work with,” Thomas said, laughing.

Meanwhile, Thomas said he hopes to see more people of color advocating for change in local and state government. Public policy won’t change unless people show up and participate in the process, he said.

“I want people to know it’s possible,” he said.