Arts and Culture

Crews quietly removed a statue of John Breckenridge Castleman from Louisville’s Cherokee Triangle on Monday morning. 

Its removal comes after nearly two weeks of protests against police brutality and racism across the city and country. While demonstrators in Louisville never made the statue’s removal a demand, its removal comes as Mayor Greg Fischer is under pressure for his administration’s handling of the shooting deaths of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee by law enforcement, and the days of protest and unrest that have followed. Mayor Fischer promised to take down the statue nearly two years ago. 

Carla F. Wallace who co-founded Louisville’s Showing Up for Racial Justice, a group that has been vocal about its opposition to the statue, said it “glorifies the legacy of slavery.”

Wallace, who is white, said her organization worked hard to get the word out to residents in the area about why they believed the statue needed to go, “but it is the uprising of the Black community that has pushed this victory through.”

Are Confederate Monuments History?

Protests demanding racial justice and police reform across the country have again heightened the debate over Confederate monuments. 

In Virginia, the governor promised a prominent statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee would go. Though, on Monday, a judge temporarily blocked the order, according to multiple media reports. 

Here in Kentucky, the president of the University of Kentucky said the school would remove a mural that depicts slavery, which Black students have repeatedly said is “demeaning,” the UK student publication the Kentucky Kernel reported. Gov. Andy Beshear said he wants to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis from the Capitol Rotunda during his daily briefing on June 4.

“I believe the Jefferson Davis statue is a symbol that divides us,” he said. “And even if there are those that think it’s a part of history, there should be a better place to put it in historical context.”

Kentucky State Senator Gerald Neal supports the governor on this issue. 

He told WFPL recently that he’s heard people say that removing these monuments erases history. He disagrees.

“The history that you’re talking about is probably something that you find most of in a museum somewhere,” Neal said. “But for someone to support something that is a smack in the face of the citizenry, particularly people of color, is unacceptable.”

A spokesperson with the governor’s office said they are looking into what needs to happen to take down the statue.

The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report saying that Confederate symbols, like the flag and monuments, have been used post-Civil War by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, “as it waged a campaign of terror against African Americans during the civil rights movement and that segregationists in positions of power raised it in defense of Jim Crow.” The SPLC study also reports that there were surges in construction of Confederate monuments during times of high tension around civil rights issues, such as the enactment of Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement.

American Historical Association executive director James Grossman told NPR in 2017 that this indicates the monuments were meant to send a message.  

“These statues were meant to create legitimate garb for white supremacy,” Grossman said. “Why would you put a statue of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in 1948 in Baltimore?”

Christopher Reitz is an assistant professor of critical and curatorial studies and the gallery director at the University of Louisville. He’s also a chair of the city’s Commission on Public Art and sat on the mayor’s Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee. The committee held multiple public meetings over the course of five months in 2018 to discuss public art and monuments, and Reitz said that the Castleman statue came up often in these conversations. 

“The challenge with Castleman was his public service, he was very much a public figure,” Reitz said, noting how this debate over this monument was not as cut and dry as other statues with ties to the Confederacy. “We’ve tried to have these discussions publicly and there’s a lot of feelings and a lot of concerns about what it means to have been a political animal during a very horrific time in American history.”

Guidelines laid out by the Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee in 2018 are meant to help the city determine how to evaluate public monuments, including baseline values and principles, plus criteria that would be used to consider the fate of debated pieces. 

The set of principles poses the central question of whether monuments are, in and of themselves, history. The committee concluded that they are not history.

That passage reads: “Monuments are one of the ways city government can highlight select historical figures and events and make them accessible to the public. This means that monuments in public spaces become sanctioned versions of history. They reveal some parts of history and hide others… However, monuments are often part of our art historical record and the city does have an obligation to preserve that record when possible, although not necessarily in a public right-of-way or civic space.”

Reitz noted that, what also sets the Castleman statue apart from other Confederate monuments that were produced en mass with molds, is that “decent sculptors were brought in [to work on it], there was a bid to do the work. All that becomes interesting in terms of the object status.” 

“The Castleman might be of historic value just as an artwork, and then the question becomes, well, does it have to stay where it is for it to retain that value?” Reitz said. “And I think the answer to that is no.”

As for what will replace Castleman, a press release from the city said officials haven’t made that decision yet. But any proposed art or monument would have to be reviewed based on the city’s public art guidance. 

A Moment Years In The Making 

Mallory Jennings had rushed out to witness crews remove the Castleman statue on Monday. She told WFPL that she sees the statue, and other monuments with ties to the Confederacy, as symbols of racial oppression. 

“I think the right moment could have been decades ago to be honest, but… I will take any moment,” she said.” It feels nice to have it maybe replaced with something that stands for what our great city is all about.”

This moment, that she speaks of, has been years in the making though.

Community members began calling for the statue’s removal in 2017, following a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

The statue, featuring Castleman in civilian clothing riding a horse, has been doused in orange and white paint several times with words like “racist” and “traitor” sprayed onto it. There were also protests at the statue’s feet.

Ashlie Stevens | wfpl.org

The Castleman statue after being vandalized in 2018.

The Louisville figure was an officer with the Confederate army. He was pardoned for his time in the Confederate ranks, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army, as well as having a hand in establishing Louisville’s parks system. But critics of the statue have said it is a point of pain and divisiveness for the community, pointing to examples such as how Castleman asked that his casket be draped with both the American and Confederate flags. There are also passages in his autobiography in which he appears to give deference to slavery and a certain kind of Southern way of life.   

“What he did and who he is is a symbol of the Confederacy which equals the evils of slavery, racism, white supremacy in the south and in our country,” Carol Kramer, who helped organize one of those early rallies, told WFPL in 2017

Nearly two years ago, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said it would come down, citing a report drafted by the mayor-appointed Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee as base for his decision. 

Residents had been split on the mayor’s announcement. 

Jim Morrow, who lived nearby at that time, told WFPL he was sad it would be removed.

“The statue has always been something that I’ve appreciated living beside,” Morrow said. “It’s a beautiful piece of art.”

A group called Friends of Louisville Public Art filed a complaint with the Jefferson County Circuit Court in 2019 to prevent the removal of the monument. In the past, group members have said that Castleman’s history has been misrepresented in the media, and that he had Black supporters.

That legal battle has played out in the courts since, and the city appeared to have a win on June 5 when a court ruled in the city’s favor to remove the work. 

But it’s not over just yet.

In a press release on Monday, attorney Steve Porter, who is representing Friends of Louisville Public Art, said they’ll continue to fight for the Castleman statue to stay in Cherokee Triangle.

“The Circuit Court failed to consider the major points of law contained in our original complaint and we will ask the Court to reconsider,” Porter wrote in the statement. “Louisville Metro has no right to remove the Castleman statue until all court processes are exhausted.”

Porter said they will file a motion this week to appeal the court’s decision. 

Fischer responded, at his Monday briefing, saying that the city’s attorneys “gave us the advice that we could move quickly.”

“So we removed it this morning in a nice quiet and peaceful way and I look forward to seeing the triangle without Castleman now,” he said. 

And despite Fischer’s initial statement pointing to how “the events of the past weeks have shown clearly that it’s not enough just to face our history – we’ve got to address its impact on our present,” the mayor said the timing of the removal was in connection to the legalities of taking it down. 

“We’ve been waiting on the judge’s decision all along,” Fischer said. “And if we won that appeal, my direction was to move it as soon as practicable and safe. So he made the ruling on Friday, we moved to Monday morning.”

A number of Facebook comments on Fischer’s live stream of his press conference call the mayor’s move to take down the statue now a diversion from the major issue in front of him right now: “Removing statues is such a white knee jerk reaction. It says, ‘Look at what I’m doing to make everything alright.’ You want to make everything right? Get off your bicycle and fire those officers involved in killing Breonna Taylor… have a real investigation done… Revamp the police department, top to bottom,” one commenter wrote.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.