Lexington, we have a problem.
Actually, we’ve had one for a while. Our “complicated” history of black and white keeps showing up in full color, teeth bared, to taunt us and haunt us. Our commonwealth’s original sin of trying to remain neutral in what some call the War of Northern Aggression remains a defining characteristic of our state and city, regarding what some call “issues” of race and justice.
As South African leader Desmond Tutu put it plain, however, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
So where does that leave us more than 150 years after what some call the War Between The States ended? In what some would call a bit of a pickle.
A few weekends ago, some person or persons spray-painted racist graffiti — including a reference to the South’s most enduring terrorist organization, the KKK — on two of Lexington’s public schools.
That every one of our city’s leaders and politicians decried and condemned these actions surprises no one. That few of our city’s leaders and politicians want to draw a line between those actions and our fair town’s state- and city-endorsed monuments to slavery and the Confederacy at what we locals call “Cheapside” should surprise no one either.
The history of this place in regards to slavery, freedom and segregation is “complicated” — if you’re white.
Not too long after the graffiti issue, another bombshell from our complicated history emerged, this time by way of South Orange, N.J. A public school teacher, in order to teach “the ugly and foundational role that slavery played in Colonial America” — per the school’s superintendent — had children re-create “slave ads.”
Savvy, digital natives that they are, the 10-year-olds Googled their way into the heart of some of our city’s most painful and uncomplicated history. The result? A misdated, crayoned bill advertising the sale of people at what was — at one time — the second-largest slave market in the South: what we locals call “Cheapside.”
Now, there is nothing we can change about the past. Extracted from the end of a whip over hundreds of years, our country, commonwealth and city devastated millions of lives and laid waste to families for the purposes of profit. Reckon with it we must, and reckon with it we will. But when and on whose terms?
Today, at Cheapside two larger-than-life monuments to confederates stand. Slaveholders, traitors to the Union, armed defenders of the institution of slavery, it is often said of both John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge that “they were products of a different time.”
We will grant you that, if you grant us this: We are products of this time.
So tell us, what does it say about our city that those slave owners’ statues stand higher than the farmers at our Farmers’ Market, higher than our musicians at Thursday Night Live, higher than our festivals, our citizens, our March Madness Marching Band, our mounted police officers, higher than our parades and our city’s new, electric buses?
Can we, as products of this time, honestly say about the enduring presence of those statues in that space that our town’s current relationship to slavery and the Confederacy is complicated?
There is nothing neutral about those statues — there never was. They must, therefore, be moved away from the historical site of Lexington’s slave market. Contact the mayor and your city council member, and tell them: What we locals call Cheapside is not a place where any whitewashing or lifting up of slavery or its defenders will be tolerated.
Russell Allen represents the citizen coalition Take Back Cheapside, www.TakeBackCheapside.com.