Supporters of keeping the controversial statue of John Breckinridge Castleman at the opening of Cherokee Park rallied at the roundabout Tuesday. This time, they argued that black people — both then and now — supported Castleman and that the narrative about him is skewed.
Castleman served as an officer in the Confederate Army, before going on to serve as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army and play a role in the creation of Louisville’s parks system. Groups like the newly-formed Friends of Louisville Public Art argued the city should keep the statue because Castleman’s good deeds outweigh his service in the Confederacy. They also argued that city leaders and the media haven’t painted Castleman accurately.
Martina Kunnecke said she’s concerned this is an attempt to change history.
“It is always troubling when history is cleaned up, dirtied up, fashioned to fit a political purpose, which we feel in the case of the Castleman statue, that is what has happened,” Kunnecke said.
Kunnecke is with a group called Neighborhood Planning and Preservation, and she’s African-American. And though both Kunnecke and Friends of Louisville Public Art have spoken publicly in defense of keeping the Castleman statue in the past, Tuesday’s event was a little different. Despite Castleman’s service in the Confederacy — and his loyalty to that cause which continued until his death — supporters are making a public relations push to argue that both in the past and currently, black people supported Castleman too.
Architect and historian Steve Wiser offered up quotes from two Courier Journal letters to the editor that suggest black people in the early 20th Century supported Castleman. One was from a eulogy after Castleman’s death; the other opposed city moves to segregate Louisville parks.
And besides Kunnecke’s testimony, Wayman Eddings also offered his support. Eddings is black, and previously ran unsuccessfully for the Jefferson County Board of Education in 2018 and for Kentucky’s House of Representatives in 2016. He said people should understand history before making decisions.
“When I look at the Castleman statue, I look at a piece of art, but also a piece of history,” Eddings said. “That hearkens back to men and women who helped to found this community from many different origins.”
A Complicated Past
Like most people, Castleman was complicated. According to historian Tom Owen, he was berated by whites after saluting a black officer at Camp Taylor. He also once prevented a group of white people from killing two black men being held in a jail.
“I think Castleman was seen by many African-Americans as a person, who had in the context of rising Jim Crow demands, had resisted some of those demands,” Owen said.
But Castleman’s allegiance to the Confederacy lasted until death; he requested his casket be draped in both the American and Confederate flags. Owen said Castleman’s memoir doesn’t portray any regret for his time in the Confederacy.
“If his side had won, as he did everything he could do to help his side win, it’s likely that some friends and some citizens of color would still be in chains.”
If you ask Black Lives Matter Organizer Chanelle Helm, Tuesday’s press conference was an attempt to whitewash the evils of Castleman’s participation as a Confederate officer in the Civil War.
“Mounds of Union money went to support the south to rebuild and they built statues of their losing war,” Helm said. “We’re talking about the thought process of praising someone who did something bad as if forgiveness is even a doable action.”
Helm said that Castleman’s leadership in establishing the Olmsted Parks doesn’t erase his role in perpetuating the systemic racism that existed not only before and during the Civil War, but also through reconstruction.
Barbara Boyd, the president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, said that the statue gives too much attention to the people that fought in the Confederacy — and that there’s not equal attention to African-American history.
“Why can’t we, as a form of reparations, start building monuments that African-Americans contributed to this country?” Boyd said. “Instead of monuments with chains around our necks and us being sold on a marketplace, what about some of the positive aspects that we’ve contributed to this country?”
Boyd said a statue of a prominent African-American who fought in the Civil War could make for a good addition of public art.
Helm with Black Lives Matter also believes that this discussion about the appropriateness of the Castleman statue is one that mostly exists in the city’s East End. She said the black community is less interested in the fate of the Castleman statue then resolving the outstanding problems that exist in west Louisville.
“Right now the black community is upset that there is active murders of our children right now. The black community is upset that we don’t have grocery stores,” she said. “If more people are saying destroy it, destroy it because I can tell you the everyday black person in this city does not know this is taking place and this is not on their plate.”
Wiser, who’s also an architect and plaintiff in the case, says the group will receive the status of their legal appeal in a few days. If that appeal fails, then the city’s plan is to move the statue to Cave Hill Cemetery where Castleman is buried.
Ryan Van Velzer and Bill Burton contributed to this report.