It was time. Long past time, actually.
As the sun set Tuesday on a beautiful fall day, it also set on Lexington’s two most visible symbols of history rewritten.
A bronze statue of John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. vice president whose last public role was as the Confederate Secretary of War, had stood in a place of honor in Lexington’s public square since 1887. More than two decades after the Civil War ended, Confederate memorial groups urged that the statue should be placed there and persuaded Kentucky legislators that it was a good use of $10,000 of taxpayer money.
Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a cavalry raider who burned towns and stole horses, was honored nearby with a bronze equestrian statue in 1911, nearly five decades after the Civil War ended. When the United Daughters of the Confederacy could raise only half the statue’s $15,000 cost, state officials used taxpayer money for the other half.
In both cases, black citizens were not asked their opinions. These statues were all about showing them who was still boss.
The Morgan and Breckinridge statues were among dozens erected around the South during the Jim Crow era. The goal was to recast the image of a rebellion to destroy the Union and preserve slavery as a noble “lost cause” of Southern culture and pride.
Those monuments endured for more than a century, but they have begun coming down across the South because they can no longer be explained away as benign artifacts. Modern white supremacists, who have friends in high places, rally around them as hateful symbols of “heritage.” A deadly protest over removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va., spurred Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council to action.
The council unanimously approved Gray’s request in August to move the statues out of Lexington’s historic public square. The Lexington Cemetery, where both men are buried, has tentatively agreed to take them as memorials to the dead rather than monuments to heroes.
But that move has been delayed because, in 2003, former Mayor Teresa Isaac signed paperwork giving control of statues to the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission. Gray asked Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office for an opinion about whether Isaac’s action was legal, because it was never approved by the council. Beshear decided Tuesday that it was not legal, so Gray moved quickly Tuesday night to put the statues in storage until arrangements with the cemetery can be completed.
As night fell Tuesday, a crane moved Breckinridge onto a truck bed, where he was wrapped in a blue protective tarp. Workers next turned their attention to Morgan. As police surrounded the site, dozens of people gathered to watch, including members of the citizens group Take Back Cheapside.
“As the great-grandson of a slave, this is amazing,” said DeBraun Thomas, the group’s leader. “We can actually make change if we stand together.”
Take Back Cheapside had sought the statues’ removal; the return of a state historic marker about the site’s role as a slave auction block and whipping post; and a discussion about how to make Cheapside more inviting to all citizens.
Cheapside is rich in Civil War history, just not history as it was depicted there for 130 years. Between the 1830s and the 1860s, Cheapside was one of the South’s most active slave markets. Kentucky and Virginia then had a surplus of slave labor, while there was great demand for it in Mississippi and Alabama, where vast cotton plantations were being developed.
Ever heard of being “sold down the river?” Cheapside was where that literally happened to thousands of black men, women and children.
“We need to tell the history of what happened here and why it was inappropriate to have those statues there in the first place,” Thomas said. “This is very much sacred ground.
“But black history is so much more than slavery,” he added, noting that the brick superstructure for the 1898 courthouse now being restored was done by a company owned by black mason Henry Tandy, a former slave. His son, Vertner Tandy, would go on to become the first black architect in New York.
That’s the important thing to remember about what happened at Cheapside this week. It wasn’t rewriting history, but taking the first steps toward making history more accurate and complete.