Tag Archives: Confederacy

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More Context

John Hunt Morgan, “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy”, is safe in his construction cocoon. Protected from debris and damage during the much-anticipated renovation of Lexington’s historic courthouse, the statue of Morgan was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1911, during the dark century of continued subjugation in the South of freed slaves and their descendants following the Civil War. The Morgan statue will greet visitors to the courthouse’s main entrance upon completion of the renovation.

The Morgan memorial, and its companion statue in the courthouse plaza, erected in 1887, of John C. Breckinridge, Vice-President of the United States, slave owner, defender of secession, Confederate general, and the last Secretary of War of the Confederate States of America, create an heroic tableau that some have called “history”.

The statues were erected in the public square, on a block which was, in the first-half of the nineteenth century, the site of major slave auctions, and marked in recent times by a small, lonely plaque.

slaves00

At the end of a summer riven by blood, outrage, fear, and protest, is it still important to talk about some statues?

The conversation about Lexington’s courthouse statues, begun after the massacre at “Mother” Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, continued last fall. Mayor Jim Gray charged the Urban County Arts Review Board (UCARB) to make recommendations concerning the future of the statues, highlighting the need to reflect “shared values”, diversity, and inclusiveness.

The Board studied the issues exhaustively, heard testimony from experts and the public, and encouraged submission of letters of opinion from the general public. They received many more letters in support of retaining the statues in their locations in the courthouse square. Nevertheless, in November the Board recommended that the statues of Morgan and Breckinridge be moved from the courthouse block to other publicly accessible, appropriate places.

At the meeting where this and other recommendations were made, the UCARB members looked on incredulously as, at the eleventh hour, city officials informed them that removal of the statues might very well jeopardize the federal historic tax credits that were a vital part of the financing of the courthouse renovation. The extensiveness of discussions with federal historic preservation officials concerning this issue has never been publicly disclosed.

After the November UCARB meeting the public conversation about the statues went into a deep sleep.

In mid-February of this year, Chris Corcoran, an advisor to Mayor Gray, announced that the Mayor had decided to keep the statues in place, telling the Arts Review Board:

“The mayor’s intent is to keep those statutes where they are and provide more context,” (italics are mine) Corcoran said. “We are not pursuing moving the statues.”

Conversation over.

They say that history is written by the victors, and all across the South in the decades after the Civil War the believers in “The Lost Cause” retained the symbols of the Confederacy and valorized its heroes. It was a victory after defeat and a message of warning to those who would try to upend the renewed and revived architecture of domination and subjugation. The new heroes, inheritors of the mantle, were men in white robes, police officers with dogs and billy clubs, and governors standing in schoolhouse doors.

So what would be more context for our statues, presiding in place in our public square?

Perhaps this:

The statues of Morgan and Breckinridge stand as testament that history can be warped and defiled. That a gauzy cover can be applied to it to encourage a recasting of the true history of a vile cause. That a history of a place, our public square, the site of untold suffering in the decades before the Civil War, can be nearly erased. These statues are not “history”, they only mark the attempts by people in history to rework history. Mark this; the statues were erected not just to memorialize heroes of “The Lost Cause” but to serve as a warning to those who would attempt to impede that revision of history and challenge its contemporary malevolent regime.

Not enough more context?

The men valorized by these statues were inhabited by an evil and degrading ideology. An ideology of racial superiority in service of a system that required centuries of enslavement of other human beings. So, Africans stolen from their homelands and their descendants, were subjected to the most cruel and inhumane conditions, treated and tortured as beast of burdens, and bought and sold as property of others on this very spot. These slaves were instrumental in building the early America.

The fever of this racist malignant ideology and system was only stanched by a most bloody and wrenching civil war. It still remains to be fully extinguished. Slavery in the United States takes its place amongst the most horrific and prolonged injustices and acts in humanity’s known history. It is the cause for which Morgan fought and died and Breckinridge avidly served. This is the true history to be remembered in this place amongst these statues.

We whitewash or forget this truth at our peril.

But perhaps the most appropriate more context, would be this image, suggested in a conversation with UK Art Museum Director, Stuart Horodner, and projected large throughout the courthouse plaza:

ali

For another response to the courthouse statues see Tom Martin’s UnderMain piece about Kurt Godhe and Kremena Todorova’s latest community engagement art project, Unlearn Fear+Hate.

Slave auction announcement image courtesy of University of Kentucky

Ali-Morgan image courtesy of Chris Rosenthal 

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Cheapside Statues: An Opinion

Editor’s Note: The Urban County Government Art Review Board (UCARB) has held several special meetings to consider the status of the statues of John Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan in Cheapside Park. UnderMain has published a number of pieces about this issue since the Charleston church shootings in June. The UCARB is now in the process of developing its recommendations to Mayor Gray, to be presented in November. The following opinion piece, intended as a statement to the UCARB, is by Van Meter Pettit, a local architect. Input into this issue may be submitted directly to the office of Mayor Gray at mayor@lexingtonky.gov or by calling 859 258-3100.

I am writing to recommend that Lexington consider carefully relocating the bronze Confederate monuments currently located in Cheapside Park. This is not meant, as some have alleged, to erase or destroy history. On the contrary, it is to recognize more appropriately a buried history that deserves to be honored in this unique location where it took place.

The bronze figures of Breckinridge and Morgan have no specific tie to this precise location except for the fact that they were located there a long time ago. Morgan could be more appropriately located near the house museum where he lived. Breckinridge or Morgan could be more appropriately recognized in the Lexington Cemetery because it is where their bodies are buried. Since Henry Clay and countless war dead are located there it would in no way be disrespectful to relocate these landmarks there. They would be in good company.

Why go to the trouble of moving landmarks that have stood in this public space for a century or more? Because for 150 years our guardians of history have had that chance to tell the story of slavery and racial violence that was ritually and publicly conducted in this civic space but have failed to do so. It is time to clear this ground of pro-slavery landmarks installed during an era of racial oppression and terror in order to convey a very significant history that is tied specifically to this place. Confederate monuments and the Civil War have no specific claim on this ground. They actually serve to obstruct an important story that has yet to be properly honored.

What appears to be wholly missing from the community conversation about Cheapside is its unique history as a public square. In addition to serving as a marketplace and a seat of justice and public administration, it is also a place where more African American slaves were sold than any other place in the state1. Men, women, and children were sold in the thousands like livestock and split from all known family and relations. It was legal, it was commonplace, and it made many white families in Kentucky very rich. There is a building on Upper Street that still has evidence of basement pens used to hold slaves awaiting sale.

From eyewitness accounts as early as 1816, the courthouse square was used regularly as a place to whip slaves who were guilty of an infraction as benign as missing a curfew. It was a public spectacle that regularly drew crowds even when the town was very small2. For nearly a century these ritual beatings were a form of social and political entertainment. Less frequently, but yet repeatedly, this site also hosted lynchings, where blacks accused of a crime could be killed without trial or legal recourse.

During the era when former Confederates dominated state and local politics3, men who registered black Lexingtonians to vote could be murdered in front of numerous witnesses without the perpetrators being brought to justice4. From a high of nearly 50% in 1900, the population of African-Americans in Lexington quickly dropped to below 15%. Unrestrained night raids by vigilantes against black residents were an obvious motivation for black Lexingtonians to migrate away.

This post-confederate ‘Birth of a Nation’ style reign of terror made famous by D.W. Griffith’s grotesque heroic depiction did not end until a 1920 race riot of several thousand that led to six deaths and scores of injured. A mob stormed the courthouse where a black man was being tried for murder. They intended to beat him and hang him rather than allow him to stand trail. Kentucky Governor Edwin Morrow called in federal troops to maintain order5. This event happened after both bronze statues were installed. This is the political environment in which they were created and sited.

Thousands of humans sold as slaves, hundreds of the enslaved brutally and publicly lashed, and an untold number of before and after the Civil War publicly lynched… and we have only a state highway marker that has been vandalized. Almost no one knows this history of our oldest public square. Instead we are discussing pro-slavery bronze figures that as historical figures are footnotes outside of Lexington.

John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan were both elite Confederate generals who chose treason against the nation in order to defend and protect the institution of slavery, something Ken Burns refers to as “America’s original sin”. These monuments need to be recognized as a statement of cultural and political defiance against the outcome of the Civil War and the subsequent elevation of African-Americans to a status of full citizenship. Kentucky failed to ratify the 13th (abolishing slavery), 14th (citizenship to former slaves, equal protection under the law) and 15th (right to vote) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution until 1976. Kentucky elected former Confederates or their sympathizers to political leadership for decades after the Civil War.

These statues must be evaluated based upon the context of the politics and public discourse of their time. Their creation and placement were political and philosophical acts that have not lost their original meaning. To suggest that they no longer possess a very toxic cultural baggage would be willfully naive.

These landmarks hold a similar cultural message as the statue of Jefferson Davis that stands in the state capitol. Seventy-two university historians agree that the Davis monument should be relocated away from the Capitol Rotunda because, “The statue’s presence in the Capitol rotunda ‘minimizes the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, downplays the human suffering of millions and endows the Southern cause with a nobility it does not deserve’, said a letter signed and sent to state lawmakers by the current and former historians6.”

In my opinion the Cheapside pro-slavery artifacts share a message that willfully and intentionally obscures the blight of slavery in our history in favor of a fictionalized ‘nobility’ born of victim status from northern aggression. That the pro-slavery Cheapside monuments stand in a place where slaves were brutally and publicly whipped, murdered and sold away from loved ones makes them all the more impossible to ignore or absolve.

These landmarks can be understood as the defiant and unrepentant gestures of a former slave-owning elite who dominated the politics and economics of Kentucky during this period. White supremacy and nostalgia for the slavery era is their shared context. I sincerely believe that to allow these to remain in places of honor is to endorse the messages they were made to convey.

If we fail to act in this pivotal moment we will send a message that we are still culturally unreflective of the gravity of our past and that the slave-holding old guard still have our implicit respect and tacit blessing.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration.


1 Cheapside Slave Auction Block By Tim Talbot from explorekyhistory.ky.gov

2 An 1816 account of Lexington recorded by Samuel R. Brown and recounted by J. Winston Coleman, Jr. in Six sketches of Kentucky, published by the Henry Clay Press

3 How Kentucky Became a Confederate State, by Christopher Phillips New York Times, May 22, 2015

4 Kentucky Historian George C. Wright in his book, Racial violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940 : lynchings, mob rule, and “legal lynchings” at least 353 lynchings took place in Kentucky up to 1940. A majority of the victims were African American men.

5 History of Governor Edwin P. Morrow from Wikipedia

6 72 history professors sign letter urging removal of Jefferson Davis statue from Kentucky Capitol Lexington Herald-Leader by Jack Brammer jbrammer@herald-leader.com, August 31, 2015

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Racial Divide Creates Convenient Amnesia

The Chinese Whispers Game. Broken Telephone. It goes by many names, but you know the one: you tell the person sitting next to you a secret, then they tell it to the person next to them, and so on until it gets back to you. And more likely than not, the message has been misinterpreted, massaged and mangled until it no longer resembles anything close to the original.

After reading Anne E. Marshall’s “Creating a Confederate Kentucky” (2010 The University of North Carolina Press), the only logical explanation I could come to was that Kentucky’s Civil War history had fallen victim to the antics of this prepubescent game.

But that would be an easy out because the historical facts that Marshall brings to light could not be more clear. Kentucky, the so-called Switzerland of the Civil War, planted its flag of neutrality. Yet like most other states, Kentuckians had predetermined their allegiance. Some were Confederate supporters, others were ready to don the blue of the Unionists. But take a look at Kentucky’s historical afterward, and what you would infer is that Kentucky fervently championed the Confederacy.

And it all comes down to one reason: race.

Blue, Gray & Black

Marshall filters all of Kentucky’s Civil War history through a sieve of scrutiny. There are few presumptions or inferences, which is really what makes Kentucky’s future Confederate affinity so bewildering.

In the introduction, Marshall writes: “Union memory in Kentucky became too closely associated with emancipation and African American progress for white Unionists to accept it as their own.”

And there it is. Many Kentucky whites fell on that side of the war because they felt the Union was more apt to support their political and business ideals … and one of those businesses was slavery. The way the state legislature pitched it to Kentuckians was that their Unionist loyalty would actually insure their rights to own slaves. (Obviously, this was before Abraham Lincoln introduced the first version of the Emancipation Proclamation; emancipation was not one of the original catalysts of the war.)

Then when northern abolitionists took it upon themselves to liberate slaves, Kentucky whites saw the writing on the wall. Add to that the recruitment of blacks to the Union Army, then even gradual emancipation was out of the question for these early Unionists.

The Lost Cause Narrative

So when the story that unfolded post-war wasn’t the one most white Kentuckians preferred, they simply held onto the notion of the Lost Cause – the movement that sought to reinstate traditional Southern values while blaming the loss of the war on government betrayals, and idolizing Confederacy leaders. Kentucky whites never admitted they were wrong for supporting the Union but their actions said as much. At the end of the day, the majority of white Kentuckians wanted slavery to continue, at least long enough to get compensation for their “property.”

Winners and losers united after the end of the war once they realized that their main post-war concern – the politics of race – was more important than the color of their uniforms.

Marshall includes several examples of newspaper reports that eluded to Kentucky’s backwards attitude toward slavery. “Oh wise Democracy of Kentucky, hugging the relic of slavery to your bosoms, holding on to slavery because it used to pay, forgetting that the times have changed…” wrote the Cincinnati Gazette.

Instead, many white Kentuckians simply countered with their own translation of the effects of the war. John Fox Jr.’s “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come” conveyed the notion that Kentucky was Confederate in sympathy if not in uniform. Annie Fellows Johnston’s children’s book, “The Little Colonel,” which was set in a fictionalized version of Peewee Valley, vigorously perpetuated the notion that Kentucky was a Confederate state.

And perhaps the most relevant was the erection of Kentucky monuments honoring Confederate leaders. Again, just a reminder, the Confederacy did not win the war. Yet these grand displays of honor say otherwise.

Hustle & Flow

Marshall’s research and relevant theories inarguably validate what many Civil War historians have known: despite being on the “winning team,” Kentucky has historically celebrated the leaders and philosophy of the Confederacy.

There are so many WTF moments in “Creating a Confederate Kentucky” that will incite instant fury if you are a purveyor of justice. But the journey to get to these realizations is a bit laborious.

The book, all 188 pages of it, is peppered with dozens (and dozens) of examples that cast a light of inexplicable ignorance on those in power in Kentucky during this era. There is no question as to what was (is?) at play here: dressing up racial inequality in a seersucker suit and a dapper bowtie as to camouflage it in southern charm. But these truths are obstructed by the stumbling blocks caused by the flow.

Editing is to blame here (confession: I am an editor by profession, so I admit to a bias, but I’d argue this point even if I wasn’t). The book is divided into subjects as well as time periods within the 1865-1935 timeline. But because politics is the real driving force behind the Lost Cause argument, there are a great deal of redundancies throughout the book. Unfortunately, this waters down many of the solid points Marshall makes.

She does draw some interesting parallels that I hadn’t put together before, namely the influence of Appalachia’s eastern Kentucky. The region boasted the absence of slavery and was a major white base of the Republican party at the time. In fact, Vanceburg, Ky., is home to one of the strongest memorials to the Union. (Kentucky is home to around 70 Civil War monuments, 6:1 in favor of the Confederacy.)

If you go into the book looking for a Civil War narrative that neatly shows Kentucky’s convenient amnesia about its role in “The Lost Cause,” you will leave empty-handed. But for a Civil War reference book that directly addresses Kentucky’s flip-flopping allegiance, Marshall’s “Creating a Kentucky Confederacy” is truly engaging. It is also a reminder to never take things at face value. You don’t need to devour the book in one setting. In fact, allowing the absurdity of Kentucky’s rejection of the final outcome to truly set in helps to explain a lot about the Civil War legacy the Commonwealth has left its citizens with today. The issue really is black and white.

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Visions of Cheapside- An Updated Update!

In our recent piece on UnderMain about the history of slave auctions at Cheapside  and the statues of heroes of the Confederacy that stand there today, we called for public art to reveal the true nature of that space made sacred by suffering. At a wonderful public forum in July at the Carnegie Center, the Mayor announced that he has asked the Arts Review Board to make recommendations.

We believe that this important conversation should be inclusive, so that a project to re-imagine Cheapside is a true community effort. The conversation is made more urgent now with the apparent deliberate breaking of the sign at Cheapside relating the history of slave auctions at the site.

In a related piece of news, the state Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted 7-2 to keep the statue of Jefferson Davis, President of the secessionist Confederate States of America and devoted defender of slavery, in the Capitol rotunda alongside Kentucky greats, like Abraham Lincoln. Davis was born in Fairview, Kentucky, but spent much of his life in Mississippi. The statue was erected under the auspices of the Kentucky Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was unveiled in 1936, part of a decades-long revanchist effort begun after the Civil War to romanticize, glorify, and commemorate the Lost Cause and its heroes. That cause, primarily and centrally to preserve the right to continue the enslavement of African-Americans, continued throughout the South under a different guise for another 100 years after the Civil War through an architecture of subjugation including Jim Crow laws, enforced segregation and discrimination, deprivation of basic constitutional rights, intimidation, violence, and murder.

In Lexington, the first meeting of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Arts Review Board with the Cheapside issue on the agenda was on Wednesday, August 12. Mayor Jim Gray appeared before the Board and presented his charge for the Board to make studied recommendations concerning the status of the statues and historic marker in Cheapside. The Mayor made a point several times during his brief statement to highlight the importance of “shared values” and sensitivity to Lexington’s history, diversity, and inclusiveness in the Board’s considerations.

The next meeting concerning Cheapside of the Arts Review Board will be on September 16, at 3:00pm. At that meeting invited consultants with expertise in history, art, public art and other related fields will present information to the Board for its consideration. The meeting is in the LFUCG Council Chambers and is open to the public. Attendance by interested members of the community at this next meeting and the public comment meeting on September 21, at 6:00pm, is encouraged and urged.

We would most definitely like to hear your ideas for efforts to address the history of Cheapside. Continued involvement of the community in this effort is most important. We will compile your suggestions and send them on to the Arts Review Board, whose Chairperson, Georgia Henkel, has expressed interest in suggestions coming through the UnderMain channel. We also will highlight in a future post on UnderMain some of the ideas that we think would be “revelations”, as we called for in our piece on Cheapside. Let’s keep the conversation moving forward!

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