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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