Our own tarnished legacy

Since we seem to be having, in the wake of hate-filled murder, this moment of national conversation about symbols and meaning and memory, perhaps it’s time to look closer to home.

shacklesSome time, in the dead of the night, after the bars close, after the music stops, after the college kids stumble away, long after the farmers roll up their beautiful bounty for sale, long after the cheerful sounds of fun and games quiet, go down to Cheapside. Listen with all of your self for other sounds; the sounds of whips cracking across bare flesh, of mothers wailing as they are separated from children they will never see again, of the auctioneers’ cadences pricing human flesh, the sounds of immeasurable suffering.

This is our haunted place, our house of horrors. And presiding over it all is the dignified statue of John Breckinridge; Son of Kentucky, cousin of Mary Todd, congressman, senator, 14th Vice President of the United States, defender of the right to secession, and the only United States Senator to be convicted by the Senate of treason. Slave owner and firm defender of slavery. Still ruling over human chattel, still ruling over Cheapside.

It's about time for lots of things. Time for exposing not just the blatant racists, but the dog whistlers, the code-speakers, the apologists, the deniers, and the romanticizers of a heritage of centuries of brutality.

And perhaps right here in our little corner of paradise it’s time to give an address to truth. We, the current denizens of this place are not responsible for the evils of slavery, for the compound sins of the past. We are, however, fully accountable for freeing the truth.

So, a proposition for the now of us. Take that statue of Mr. Breckinridge and put him somewhere else, not in the place where we can still hear the tortured screams of a shameful past. Maybe put him in the same museum they might put those battle flags of subjugation masquerading as state flags and symbols. And take just a bit of those millions of dollars proposed for renovation of the Old Courthouse for purposing a revelation.

Since we at UnderMain celebrate the liberating power of art, how about a commissioned piece, maybe a juried contest for a public work befitting the awful stain that was Cheapside? We love our public art in Lexington, even getting famous for it. Put it here to a purpose. Liberate the truth amidst the sounds of everyday life in the center of our city. Cheapside deserves it, we deserve it, we need it. And the voices in the night need to know we are a truthful place.

Local images provided by UK Special Collections:


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The author

Art Shechet is Co-Publisher of UnderMain.