As we all know, recent events have forced Americans to re-examine the notions of hatred, race, peace, brotherhood, and humanity. We’ve witnessed both sides of this conflict, many of us cheering as we watched up to 20,000 people– mostly southerners– march in alliance with the Emanuel AME Church in support of the nine people who were murdered there in Charleston South Carolina in June. There are a lot of reasons the Confederate flag is emblematic of this controversy, but in many places throughout the South, statues that reflect similar values are being called into question as well. In Kentucky, this debate is perhaps a microcosmic reflection of the macrocosmic issue in its entirety, as it was one of the few southern states that didn’t secede from the Union, but was still home to many people who sided with the Confederacy.
Today, we’re happy to host the thoughts of Kentucky historian, James M. Prichard, as he weighs in on the call for the removal of the statue of Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, from the state capitol in Frankfort, and suggests an intriguing solution. Below are Mr. Prichard’s words:
DAVIS STATUE CONTROVERSY:
A Historian’s Perspective
James M. Prichard
The First World War furthered a spirit of reconciliation among Kentucky’s aged Civil War veterans. Held under the auspices of the American Legion, Frankfort’s 1920 Decoration Day exercises saw Union and Confederate veterans sharing the same platform in the State Cemetery. During the course of the observances, Capt. William J. Stone, who lost a leg fighting with Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s rebel raiders, declared that he:
…gloried in the loyalty of the South in the World War – the sons and grandsons of Confederate veterans standing side-by-side with the descendants of those who wore the Blue in upholding the grandest flag which ever floated in the breeze.
At the time Stone uttered these words the capitol rotunda displayed what was undoubtedly the greatest symbol of reconciliation in the once bitterly divided state – an impressive bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln. The grand dedication ceremony for the statue on Nov. 8, 1911 marked a major passage point in Kentucky’s popular opinion of the 16th president. In Lincoln’s lifetime he was denounced by both Union and Confederate Kentuckians as the leader of the anti-slavery “Black Republican Party.” However fifty years after the guns roared at Fort Sumter he was accepted and praised as one of Kentucky’s greatest sons.
The statue was unveiled by President William Howard Taft and accepted by Gov. Augustus Wilson who praised both Henry Clay and Lincoln for their determination to preserve the Union in the face of sectional strife. Wilson after noting the presence of Union and Confederate veterans at the ceremony, quoted part of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, “We are not enemies but friends…” Henry Watterson, the influential editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, spoke in behalf of the Confederate veterans in attendance. He declared that Kentucky gave “to the longest and bloodiest of modern wars both its Chieftains, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and to each of the contending armies a quota of fighting men equal to that of any other state…” Waterson then boasted that once the war ended the “Federal and Confederate” became brothers once again.
While Watterson expressed his firm conviction that Lincoln was God’s chosen instrument to preserve the Union, other invited guests were no doubt equally convinced that he was also sent by the Almighty to destroy slavery. In addition to the dignitaries and veterans, the invitation to attend the dedication was also extended to former slaves. Dr. E.E. Underwood of Frankfort, a member of the recently organized N.A.A.C.P., was present in his capacity as chairman of a committee formed to formally welcome “Colored people” to the capital for the event.
The unveiling ceremony in Frankfort was only the first stop for President Taft in Kentucky. The following day he travelled to Hodgenville for the dedication of the Lincoln birthplace monument. Once again Kentucky’s leading Union and Confederate veterans participated in the ceremony and prominent African-American leaders were invited to attend. The same spirit of reconciliation soon led to the dedication of the Jefferson Davis birthplace monument in Todd County in 1924. As president of the Confederacy, Davis was roundly condemned during the war years by Kentucky’s Union press as an arch traitor who sought to destroy the work of the Founding Fathers. As in the case of Lincoln, Davis was now accepted as a native born Kentuckian who earned a place in the annals of both the state and the nation.
In the years that followed, state government publications promoting tourism in the Commonwealth frequently contained articles about Lincoln and Davis as historic Kentucky figures. Descendants of those who wore the “Blue or the Gray” were encouraged to visit the states’ parks and shrines to both Civil War leaders. Now defunct, “The Blue and Gray State Park” was dedicated in Todd County in 1925. The park had no historic significance but was named merely because it offered a stopping place for tourists half way between the Lincoln memorial near Hodgenville and the Davis birthplace site.
Twenty-five years after the dedication of the Lincoln statue in Frankfort, State Representative William James Garnett of Christian County introduced a bill in the Kentucky General Assembly for the approval of funds to place a statue of Jefferson Davis in the capitol rotunda. By 1936 most of the Civil war veterans of both sides and both races had passed away. The bill was approved and on Dec. 10, 1936 Gov. A. B. “Happy” Chandler formally accepted the statue in the name of the Commonwealth. It should be noted that the statue was commissioned entirely with state funds and the United Daughters of the Confederacy contributed only their presence at the event. Compared to the Lincoln dedication it was a small affair that was barely mentioned in the state’s leading newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Kentucky was a slave state and Henry Clay (1777-1852), the Commonwealth’s great statesman of the antebellum era, produced the Compromise of 1850 which gave birth to the Fugitive Slave Law. Kentucky was a “Jim Crow” state that witnessed Klan terror and lynchings. This dark legacy cannot be washed clean. However, unlike the Confederate flag during the Civil Rights era, the Jefferson Davis statue in Frankfort was not intended to be a defiant symbol of white supremacy. It was intended to be part of a symbolic landscape that marked the healing of old wounds and the bitter, bloody divisions that tore the state and the nation apart.
The recent Sons of Confederate Veterans rally in Frankfort was a public embarrassment that sadly obscured the true symbolic meaning of the Lincoln and Davis statues. Blinded by current racial turmoil and the controversy over the Confederate flag, Kentuckians risk missing an opportunity to right a great wrong to the countless, nameless men and women in bondage who helped build this Commonwealth. To right a great wrong to the memory of the men and women of both races who languished in the Kentucky Penitentiary for the “crime” of helping slaves to run away. To right a great wrong to her African-American sons who fought for their freedom and the freedom of unborn generations to come in the Union army. Let the Davis statue stand. It is time to honor Kentucky’s long neglected African-American heroes of the Civil War era.
And so I respectfully propose that all Kentuckians who truly love their heritage unite and petition the General Assembly to allocate funds for the placement of a statue of Lewis Hayden (1811-1889) in the capitol or on the capitol grounds. Like Lincoln and Davis, he was a Kentucky native who earned his place in history in another state. Unlike Lincoln and Davis he fled Kentucky as a hunted fugitive slave. He settled in Boston and afterwards risked his life as a leader in the anti-slavery cause.
Cast his likeness in bronze and raise it to a height greater than that of Jefferson Davis’s icon. Let our children and generations of children to come gaze upon the features of these Kentuckians, both black and white, who symbolize the triumph and the tragedy of the greatest ordeal our nation ever faced. And let them be reminded of the destructive consequences to the state and nation when Americans fail to recognize and respect their common humanity.
A free-lance historian who currently resides in Louisville, James M. Prichard is the author of Embattled Capital: Frankfort, Kentucky in the Civil War.