Politics & Government

Work finally begins on telling public what Jefferson Davis statue in Capitol represents

State hopes to provide better interpretation of Jefferson Davis statue in Capitol

Craig Potts, executive director of Kentucky Heritage Council, explains the task of a new committee set up to create educational materials to accompany a controversial statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda.
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Craig Potts, executive director of Kentucky Heritage Council, explains the task of a new committee set up to create educational materials to accompany a controversial statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda.

It’s taken a state panel almost half the time the four-year Civil War was fought to keep its promise to start creating educational materials for the public about the controversial statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda.

The Historic Properties Advisory Commission on Thursday appointed a Rotunda Committee to develop educational materials that will accompany the Davis statue and the four others in the Rotunda.

The commission had promised in August 2015 to produce the materials to help put the statues in historical context. The promise came after the panel rejected impassioned requests to remove the statue of the Kentucky native from the Capitol because he led the Confederacy, a self-proclaimed nation of 11 slave-holding states that seceded from the United States from 1861 to 1865 during the Civil War.

At Thursday’s commission meeting at the Berry Hill Mansion, chairman Steve Collins appointed members of the Rotunda Committee and said more may be added.

Craig A. Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council, will lead the committee. Other members will be Ron Sydnor, director of the Jefferson Davis Monument in Fairview; John Hardin, a history professor at Western Kentucky University; Kent Whitworth, executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society; Leslie Nigels, state curator and director of the state Division of Historic Properties; and Collins.

Sydnor and Hardin are black.

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James Hendrickson, Corbin, took a "selfie" with the Jefferson Davis Statue following a rally in support of keeping the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in the Capitol, held on the steps of the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Friday, July 24, 2015. The Kentucky chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organized the rally. After the photo, he attached the flag to the statue. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

Raoul Cunningham, president of the state and Louisville NAACP chapters, said he is pleased that Collins appointed a diverse committee. Still, he wants the statue removed, not put into context.

Adding educational materials “will not take away our concern that Jefferson Davis should not have a statue in the seat of Kentucky’s government.”

Cunningham said he could understand if the Davis statue were in the Mississippi Capitol, since Davis was a citizen of that Southern state and represented it in the U.S. Senate and House.

“What did he ever do for Kentucky? Nothing,” said Cunningham.

The advisory commission, which has legal control over state statues, voted 7-2 in 2015 to keep the Davis statue in the Capitol, where it stands with statues of President Abraham Lincoln and three other late prominent Kentuckians — statesman Henry Clay, Vice President Alben Barkley and frontier surgeon Ephraim McDowell.

Then-Gov. Steve Beshear had asked the commission to consider requests to move the Tennessee marble likeness of Davis, who was born in Kentucky, to the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort or to the Jefferson Davis Historic Site in Todd County after nine black people were killed at a church in South Carolina and debate intensified over Confederate symbols in public places.

The South Carolina shooter, who had an affinity for Confederate symbols, was convicted of murder and hate crime charges in federal court in December 2016 and last January was sentenced to death.

Instead of removing the Davis statue, the commission promised to set up a committee that would provide more historical context for statues in the Rotunda and educate people about their history, both good and bad.

Collins said Thursday the delay in working on the educational materials primarily was due to a change in gubernatorial administrations in December 2015. He also has cited appointment of a new state curator in February 2016 and only one meeting of the advisory commission last year as other reasons.

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Craig Potts, left, executive director of Kentucky Heritage Council, and Steve Collins, chairman of Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission, say the special panel set up Thursday, July 20, 2017, to come up with educational materials about the controversial Jefferson Davis statue in the Capitol Rotunda will not rush its work. Jack Brammer jbrammer@herald-leader.com

Collins, the son of former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, said the Rotunda Committee will have its first meeting at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at Berry Hill, following the commission’s meeting.

He did not know how long it will take the committee to finish its work, but both Potts and he said they want to draw from historians and other experts and keep the process open and transparent.

The Jefferson Davis statue was unveiled in the Capitol on Dec. 10, 1936, during the first administration of Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler.

A Bluegrass Poll in 2015 showed that 73 percent of Kentuckians favored keeping the statue in the Capitol. Seventeen percent said it should be moved to a museum.

Jefferson Davis presenter David Walker of Van Wert, Ohio, argues that Kentucky should keep its statue of the Confederate president in the Capitol during a visit April 21, 2017, with Association of Lincoln Presenters.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics

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