Op-Ed

Confederate statues a challenge and an opportunity for Lexington Cemetery

An actor, portraying Gen. Robert E. Lee, spoke at Lexington Cemetery this spring to Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln presenters during the Association of Lincoln Presenters annual convention. Both Confederate and Union dead are buried there.
An actor, portraying Gen. Robert E. Lee, spoke at Lexington Cemetery this spring to Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln presenters during the Association of Lincoln Presenters annual convention. Both Confederate and Union dead are buried there. aslitz@herald-leader.com

I am very proud of Lexington.

There you were, in the national spotlight. We heard all about it hundreds of miles away: What to do about the Confederate statues near the historic courthouse?

As we all know now, Lexington didn’t blink. Mayor Jim Gray didn’t blink. And neither did the Urban County Council. They found an answer that very much reflects the city they represent. It happened in a public meeting, in the glare of the cameras, after a very polite, but spirited public debate.

Everything about the process — the mayor’s leadership, the debate, the decision — that’s Lexington. And I just have to say one more time, it made me very proud.

After 47 years in our adopted hometown, Ralph and I recently moved to another Lexington: Lexington, Mass., to be closer to our children. I’m getting used to my new digs, but I also know I left my heart behind in the city where we raised our children; the city I served for 25 years as council member, vice mayor and mayor.

A lot of people who have lived in Lexington for years generally haven’t paid a lot of attention to the statues of John Breckinridge or John Hunt Morgan. Most folks never thought about the statement the statues were making. They had just always been there.

I even heard one of Lexington’s respected African-American leaders say that for years he didn’t pay a lot of attention to them. That ended when someone took him to the basement of a nearby office building, where he said there were still shackles attached to the walls. Cheapside Auction Block, located next to the Courthouse, was a center of slave trading in Kentucky.

Suddenly this year, after the tragedy at Charlottesville, Va., Lexington had to face up to its history. The council voted to move the statues. And they voted to tell the story of Lexington’s accurate history; not to destroy its history.

Now that the decision has been made to move the statues, here comes the next question: where?

One of the other jobs I had during my years in Lexington was serving as a trustee on the board of The Lexington Cemetery. It’s a wonderful place, cherished by the city it serves. “A historical landmark that documents the social, political, military and environmental history of the community.” Those aren’t my words. That’s the cemetery’s mission, as described on its website.

The cemetery is an oasis of peace and calm, but it is not an isolated island, untouched by the city it serves. It is Lexington’s history. It tells the city’s story.

The bodies of Breckinridge and Morgan are buried there. Sections of the cemetery are committed to Civil War veterans — Union and Confederate graves, reflecting Lexington’s divided Civil War history. And the only other two Confederate monuments in Lexington are in the cemetery.

The cemetery seems to be the one location that is generally suitable in the eyes of both Take Back Cheapside activists and those who would prefer that the statues stay where they are.

I can sympathize with the trustees. They find themselves in the midst of a difficult decision.

Of course it’s not a problem the trustees created, but the cemetery is a leading civic institution. Whatever they do, yes or no, there will be consequences and challenges.

So, these statues aren’t their problem. But have they considered that they are an opportunity?

While it might seem logical that the safe and easy choice is to vote against accepting the statues, I see it differently. I believe the citizens of Lexington, of all races, will be proud of the cemetery for helping its city by accepting the statues.

It would be a true civic service for the trustees to accept these statues and resolve this issue, giving all of us an opportunity to learn more and move forward. As a city, we don’t want to tear down these statues; nor can we leave them in place. The cemetery trustees have an opportunity no one else has to help us preserve Lexington history.

And the city needs to support the cemetery with solutions to needs that may arise as a result.

If I were mayor of Lexington today, I’d do exactly what Gray has done; if I were on the council, I’d join the unanimous vote to move the statues; and if I were a cemetery trustee, I’d vote to accept the statues.

Pam Miller served Lexington as council member, vice mayor and mayor for 25 years. She is a former trustee of The Lexington Cemetery.

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