Arts and Culture

A statue of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, will be removed from the Kentucky State Capitol.

The Historic Properties Advisory Commission held a special meeting on Friday, at the request of Gov. Andy Beshear, to determine the monument’s fate. In an 11-1 vote, the commission determined that the statue will be relocated

Carol Mitchell, director of historic properties and state curator, recommended removal early on in the meeting. 

Commissioner Cathy Thomas pointed out that “there was no Jefferson Davis statue at our Capitol during his lifetime. The monument was unveiled in 1936, at the height of the Jim Crow ear, she said.

“It’s purpose was clear… to reaffirm a legacy of White Supremacy,” Thomas said during the meeting.

In a statement, Beshear called today “a historic day in the Commonwealth.”

“It was past time for this vote and for this action,” he said. “But what it will mean is that we get a little closer to truly being Team Kentucky – that every child who walks into this Capitol feels welcome, and none of them have to look at a symbol and a statue that stands for the enslavement of their ancestors.”

The approximately 15-foot-tall marble statue, a work commissioned decades ago by the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Kentucky chapter, had been in the Capitol Rotunda for nearly 80 years, according to the state’s Historic Properties website. It was funded through private donations and $5,000 in state money in 1934, long after the Civil War had ended and during the Jim Crow era.

Beshear began calling for the “divisive” statue’s removal earlier in June. 

He’s not the first governor to attempt to take it down. Former governors Matt Bevin and Steve Beshear, Andy Beshear’s father, also said the statue shouldn’t be at the State Capitol. They didn’t have the necessary votes within the Historic Properties Advisory Commission, which oversees several historic state-owned properties and statues like the Davis one. In 2017, the commission did vote to modify the statue by removing a plaque labeling Davis a “Patriot-Hero-Statesman,” words not used on a nearby statue of former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. The Associated Press reported that the commission found those words to be too “subjective” to remain. 

During a press conference on Thursday, Republican State Sen. Chris McDaniel said he pre-filed a bill that would relocate the Davis statue to the History Center or to Jefferson Davis State Park in Fairview. The proposed legislation would take the commission out of the removal equation, he said.

“I think the historical monuments folks are a creation of statute, and they can be directed by statute, and I intend to do so,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel also suggested that the Davis statue at the Capitol be replaced with one of Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Carl M. Brashear.

“Brashear is a native of Larue County, grew up in Hawarden County, and went on to become the first African-American master diver in the United States Navy, and also the first amputee diver in the United States Navy,” McDaniel said.

During protests across the country the last two weeks, some officials have called for the removal of Confederate monuments and, in places like Richmond, Virginia, some protesters took matters into their own hands, pulling down statues of Davis, Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham and Christopher Columbus, which was then tossed into a lake, according to a NPR report.

Critics of taking down monuments, like the statue of Jefferson Davis, often say their removal whitewashes or takes away from history, even claiming that the monuments themselves are a part of history.

Paul Farber rejects that notion. He’s the artistic director and co-founder of the Philadelphia-based public art and history research studio Monument Lab, and said monuments “do more to shape the past, than the past does to shape monuments.” 

“We know that history doesn’t happen because someone looks off into the distance riding a horse,” Farber said. “We know that they are really representations and idealizations, and we also know that they tell such a small slice of the actual history and memory of a place, yet when the debate comes up whether they should be removed or replaced is the only time that the concern about their history is brought to the fore.”

Farber continued that monuments “are reflections of the people who make them, their financial interests” and, in the case of Confederate monuments, “a recasting of history that really downplays and romanticizes slavery as opposed to doing the work of real repair.” 

To the notion of permanency, Farber said that might be an unrealistic expectation of public pieces in general. 

“Monuments appear permanent, and they are built with the claims of being permanent, but they’re not permanent,” he said. “It is in fact, financial resources and mindsets that keep them active.”

These financial resources are bills often footed by taxpayers, and Farber said it’s this “quiet upkeep” that is the most troubling for him when it comes to these kinds of monuments.

In 2018, Smithsonian Magazine reported that $40 million in taxpayer funds were spent on Confederate monuments and “groups that perpetuate racist ideologies” over the course of a decade. 

Looking forward to the kinds of monuments that the U.S. might erect in the future, Farber thinks it’s important to think about the kinds of individuals and moments a community wants to elevate on public land, and often, using public dollars. 

“History is not something that is merely elevated in marble or behind the glass of the museum display,” Farber said. “History is power, history is ongoing, history is the way that we have responded to the wounds of the past.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.