Mayor Jim Gray explains desire to move Confederate statues

Published: Aug. 13, 2017 at 10:58 PM EDT
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The issue of possibly moving two Confederate statues has become a hot button topic this weekend.

For more than 100 years, Confederate statues have stood on Lexington's downtown square. The statues depict John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge, both leaders in the Confederate army. Breckinridge went on to serve as Vice President of the United States. On Sunday, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray proposed moving them. He says one of the reasons their current location is inappropriate is because it was once one of the largest slave auction blocks in the South.

"It sends a message that we don't care," DeBraun Thomas, with Take Back Cheapside, said. "And I don't believe that Lexington doesn't care."

A conversation starting back in 2015, those Confederate statues may soon have a new location. Mayor Jim Gray was set to make a proposal this week, but it was expedited because of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a Confederate statue.

"The violence that we're seeing today, the hatred that we're seeing today, that's wrong, and we must be vigorous as elected officials in calling it out just for what it is," Mayor Jim Gray said. "We cannot always decide on the timing, but it's so important that we speak out vigorously now against hatred, against bigotry, and discrimination and prejudice."

Gray will ask council those statues be moved to Veterans Park and stand alongside two Union statues.

"At one time, before the Civil War, it was one of the largest auction blocks in the south in America, so it's sacred ground, and I don't think it's right that we would continue to honor and glorify these men, these Confederate men. It's [moving the statues is] simply the right thing to do," he said.

"These have never been benign relics of the Civil War. They were very charged from the beginning," Amy Taylor, an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, said. "And I think what Charlottesville showed, or what it revealed, is what is at stake in this conversation we've been having in here Lexington; That this is not a conversation about preserving an artifact of the Civil War. It's a conversation about to what degree we'll allow symbols of white supremacy in our public spaces."

She echoed a number of points Mayor Gray made Sunday evening.

"They're really artifacts of the Jim Crow south. They were put up in the 1880s, 1911 at a time when white Lexingtonians were enacting segregation laws, disenfranchising black voters."

WKYT was at the downtown square a couple of times Sunday and each time there were a handful of officers. Caitlin Centner asked the mayor if there has been an increase in patrol.

Gray said, "We have officers that are prepared and on duty and we're prepared for any event that might occur."

He went on to say he doesn't think any outsiders will come to the city and cause trouble.

The group 'Take Back Cheapside' is calling this moment 'bittersweet' because it falls on the heels of such violence.

"It's really bittersweet because we've been working for this for quite some time and it's a little unfortunate it has to come off the back of something so unfortunate happening to really propel it forward, but I think this is a chance for the entire community to really look at itself and say, 'Okay. Where do we go from here?,'" Thomas said. "I hope that 100 years from now there can be someone that can walk through this space and see that yes, there were statues here, and yes, this was a slave auction block but we worked as a community, we worked together to make it a better place and a more inclusive place for all people."

The mayor's proposal will be discussed at the Urban County Council work session on Tuesday.

WKYT's Hillary Thornton reached out to several council members on Monday. Councilmember At Large Kevin Stinnett responded saying "I look forward to the mayor and his administration laying out the facts as to why they made the announcement this weekend, why Veterans Park, and if there are any other locations to be considered. I really am just looking forward to hearing all of the facts."

On Tuesday, the council will vote to add the topic to the docket for Thursday's meeting. The Thursday meeting is when a vote for approval could take place. If the council approves the mayor's proposal, it'd go on to the Kentucky Military Heritage Commission. The commission doesn't meet again until November, so the mayor will ask it make a decision sooner.