We have seen and heard how many people feel about the two statues at the old courthouse in downtown Lexington. Many want the figures moved; others just as strongly want them to remain. City leaders voted to move the statues, and the Lexington Cemetery Board has agreed to take them.
In this report, we will take a trip back in time to October of 1911... to try and better understand, how and why, Lexington celebrated the unveiling of a Confederate general's statue decades after the Civil War ended.
The day after officials unveiled John Hunt Morgan's statue, headlines from the Lexington Herald on October 19th, 1911 proclaimed "Thousands Pay Tribute to Memory of General John Morgan When Heroic Statue of Gallant Calvary Leader is Unveiled." News accounts describe a parade a mile long down Main Street, featuring bands, 400 Confederate veterans, and up to 20,000 people watching it all.
Ron Bryant, Kentucky Historian, says, "John Hunt Morgan was, during the war, one of the most beloved figures of a lot of Confederate supporters because of his dashing looks and his daring raids."
Few pictures exist showing the crowd estimated at 10,000 crammed shoulder to shoulder around the old courthouse for the statue unveiling. The program included the singing of "Dixie" and "Bonnie Blue Flag" as school children formed the stars and bars. Kentucky's governor spoke, and a flag of the Confederacy flew. One historian described it as "one of the greatest crowds ever seen on the streets of Lexington." But how did this happen in a state pledged to the Union? Bryant says, "It was backlash. A backlash."
WKYT's Sam Dick asked Bryant how a state that sided with the Union in the Civil War, decades later erected monument after monument honoring the Confederacy. Two monuments at the Lexington Cemetery put up in the late 1800's honor the soldiers who fought for the South. Bryant says before the war ended, Kentucky was put under martial law, and Kentuckians felt more like people in a conquered state.
Bryant says, "Kentuckians became upset. They became neo-Confederates if you will, and a lot of people even forgot their Union heritage, and began to hide it."
Many of the Confederate dead are buried in the Lexington Cemetery. Bryant is walking among the headstones, holding hands with his wife. He tells her, "All of these are Confederate soldiers."
Bryant's wife, Jane, is a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy. The national organization is dedicated to honoring the memory, and bravery of the Confederate soldier. Back in 1911, they helped pay half of the $15,000 for the John Hunt Morgan statue; the state of Kentucky provided the other half of the money.
Jane Bryant says, "I believe that I should honor and respect people that are buried on both sides."
Speaking for herself, and not the organization, Jane Bryant thinks the John Hunt Morgan statue, and the one of John C. Breckinridge should stay right where they are.
She says, "Because they're part of our history, whether you like what they did, or they were there, they're part of our history. And I think it's the one way our children can see where we were, and how far we've progressed."
The founder of "Take Back Cheapside" who led the fight to remove the statues strongly disagrees. DeBraun Thomas says, "My great-grandfather was a slave."
Thomas and many others say this is not the place to honor two men who fought to maintain slavery on the same grounds where thousands of slaves were sold. WKYT could not find any pictures of the Cheapside slave auctions, but we did discover a poster dated January of 1855. It lists 23 slaves for sale at Cheapside by a slave owner out of Lewis County. The sign refers to the men as "Bucks," a woman as a "Wench," and one with a six- month old "Picinniny," which is a racist slur for a baby. Terms of the sale are "strictly cash."
Thomas says "I completely understand why both those statues exist. But having them stand on a space where slaves were sold sends a message to people of color that 'we don't care,' and as was shown on August 17, this city very much cares about that." The Urban County Council voted to move the statues on August 17.
"There's a way to tell the history, but you have to tell all of it..."
And while newspaper accounts of the day don't mention any protest or dissent about putting the statues, Thomas believes there were many that day in Lexington who couldn't speak out. Thomas says "That's only one side of people who, I mean think about what was going on in 1911. You have reconstruction and Jim Crow- people of color are not going to go down there and voice their opinion."
More than one hundred years after this statue's unveiling, there are still strong emotions about what is right, what is respectful, and how the history of our city should be displayed and explained. As of the writing of this story, the Lexington Cemetery Board approved accepting both the statues, but with some conditions. Both John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge are buried at the Lexington Cemetery.