Community Politics

In Louisville and around the country, communities have been wrestling with the future of public monuments that honor former soldiers and officers from the Confederacy. That conversation was renewed this week, after plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia sparked protests by white nationalist and Neo-Nazi groups. As a result, one woman was killed, and two state troopers died when their helicopter crashed.

Now, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council have announced plans to remove that city’s confederate statues from the lawn of the old courthouse.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has ordered a review of all such monuments in the city, and protesters have targeted a statue in the Cherokee Triangle for removal.

And the NAACP has renewed calls for the removal of a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky statehouse, even as Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin called that a “sanitization of history.”

Kirk Savage literally wrote the book on Confederate monuments — it’s called “Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in 19th Century America.” He’s also a professor of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. I spoke with Savage about the complexities of these issues. Listen in the player above.

Most of the country’s Confederate monuments were erected between 1890 and 1920, with another surge during the 1950s and 1960s during the Civil Rights movement.

“You can see that in both cases these were directly related to race relations in the south and were directly related to kind of asserting — reasserting — white supremacy. But in that period it also became part of a systematic campaign of re-righting history to create a kind of white supremacist narrative about the confederacy and about the south after the Civil War. And this was a systematic campaign that involved textbooks and portraits of confederate leaders and schools as well as public monuments and other things.”

Louisville’s John B. Castleman statue is ‘highly unusual,’ Savage said. Castleman, a former officer in the Confederate army, is portrayed in civilian clothes, and seemingly honored for his post-war service. But:

“The fact that his confederate service here is drawn out as an honorific, it’s honored here, would in my mind turn it into a pro-Confederate monument because he is ‘a noble patriot, a gallant soldier, a useful citizen, an accomplished gentleman,’ and then ‘Major CSA, Brigadier General USA.’ So there’s really no way to separate his confederate service from all of those adjectives come before it that honor him and his service.”

Savage said he disagrees with Bevin’s statements that removing Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky state house would amount to a “sanitization of history.”

“I couldn’t disagree more with that statement. To have a statue of Jefferson Davis in Kentucky in the Kentucky statehouse is an open signal to everyone that the state embraces the ideology that Jefferson Davis stood for. The statehouse would be the last place to put a statue like that. Now, I’m not in favor of destroying that statue. I’m sure it has an interesting history which would be interesting to know more about but it would be exactly the kind of work that needs to be relocated so it isn’t officially honored by the state any longer. I mean, that sends a message, anyone going into the statehouse, white, black or otherwise, is going to face that statement. It’s not simply a neutral statement of history, it’s a statement honoring this man and his cause.”

Savage says he’s not sure about the future of these statues and monuments, but there’s probably a place for them in the retelling of history. That could include in museums, or certain parks.

“I think we’re facing these tough questions right now. Do we do what was done in Nazi Germany after World War II, which was to really literally erase all the swastikas and everything that were on public buildings and monuments and take all those monuments down?”

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for WFPL News.