Politics & Government

Group seeks to make removal of Capitol’s Jefferson Davis statue tougher

Avery Tandy, age eight, and her brother Solomon Tandy, age six, examined the statue of Jefferson Davis after the Black History Month Celebration at the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, Ky, on Feb. 10, 2016. The siblings attended the celebration with their parents.
Avery Tandy, age eight, and her brother Solomon Tandy, age six, examined the statue of Jefferson Davis after the Black History Month Celebration at the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, Ky, on Feb. 10, 2016. The siblings attended the celebration with their parents. palcala@herald-leader.com

A group known as The Friends of the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site is seeking a military designation for the controversial Davis statue in the Capitol Rotunda — a move that would make it more difficult to remove the statue from the Capitol.

State curator Leslie Nigels of Louisville and Steve Collins, chairman of the state Historic Properties Advisory Commission, said Thursday they do not know the group and are studying implications of giving the statue a military designation.

Ed Georgen, president of the citizens group from Lyon County, acknowledged in a telephone interview that the designation would require the advisory commission to get approval from the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission before ever moving the statue.

Currently, the advisory commission has sole legal authority in overseeing the statues in the Capitol. Last August, it voted 7-2-1 to keep the Davis statue in the building.

A debate has raged in Kentucky for years about whether the statue of the president of the Confederacy in the Civil War should be displayed just outside the governor’s office.

Nigels, who replaced David Buchta as state curator in February, informed the historic properties advisory commission Thursday that the Friends of the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site requested her to sign its application for registration to place the Davis statue on the Military Heritage Commission’s list of Military Sites and Objects.

She said the request came recently and she needed time to study it and determine its implications. She said she did not know if the designation would give the military commission authority over the historic advisory commission.

The commission deferred acting on the request until its next meeting.

The military commission is an independent agency created in 2002 and is attached to the Kentucky Heritage Council for administrative and support services. It maintains a registry of Kentucky military heritage sites and objects significant to Kentucky’s military history.

Its website says that 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 Military Heritage Commission. Its members include the adjutant general, the state historic preservation officer, the director of the Kentucky Historical Society, the director of the Commission on Military Affairs and the commissioner of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The 14-member historic properties advisory commission oversees the maintenance, furnishing and repairs of the Governor’s Mansion, Old Governor’s Mansion, Vest-Lindsey House and state Capitol.

Georgen said the Davis statue should stay in the Capitol.

“Jefferson Davis had more to do with Kentucky than Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln’s statue is in the Rotunda,” he said.

Asked about persons who find the statue offensive because the Confederacy broke away from the Union and promoted slavery, Georgen said “there were more reasons for the Civil War than slavery. Davis is part of our history.”

Georgen said his group primarily promotes the Davis historic site near Pembroke but it got interested in the Davis statue in the Rotunda last year when there were calls across the country to remove Confederate symbols after nine black people were killed at a church in South Carolina. The alleged shooter had an affinity for Confederate symbols.

Several Kentucky politicians, including now Gov. Matt Bevin, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers, advocated moving 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.

The issue never came up in this year’s state legislative session.

Raoul Cunningham, president of the Kentucky State Conference and Louisville chapter of the NAACP, said the commission “whitewashed” the issue and promised that debate about the statue’s location would continue.

Cunningham said Thursday it would be a mistake for the historic properties advisory commission to allow the military heritage commission to have a say in whether the statue should ever be removed.

“We would oppose giving the Davis statue the military designation this citizens’ group is seeking,” he said.

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

After voting last year to keep the Davis statue in place, the advisory commission said it would develop a program to provide “historical context” for statues in the Capitol.

Collins, chairman of the historic properties advisory commission and son of former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, said a website is being created to “elaborate on the history of the statues in the Rotunda.”

Collins acknowledged Thursday that efforts to provide historical context for the statues have been slow to develop, noting the transition from one governor to another.

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