How did Confederate statues end up in Cheapside decades after Civil War?

Published: Sep. 18, 2017 at 1:28 PM EDT
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After hearing impassioned arguments from both sides, Lexington leaders decided it’s time to relocate two Confederate statues that have sat on the lawn of Fayette County’s old courthouse lawn for more than a century.

While it’s not clear when the statues will come down or how the removal will be marked, a look back of the 1911 unveiling shows how the city marked the occasion decades after the Civil War ended.

The day after officials unveiled John Hunt Morgan's statue, headlines from the Lexington Herald on October 19, 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.

"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," said Kentucky Historian Ron Bryant.

Few pictures exist showing the crowd crammed shoulder to shoulder around the old courthouse for the 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.

"(It was) one of the greatest crowds ever seen on the streets of Lexington," Bryant said.

But how did this happen in a state pledged to the Union?

"It was backlash. A backlash," Bryant told WKYT’s Sam Dick. "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."

Two monuments at the Lexington Cemetery were put up in the late 1800s to 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.

Many of the Confederate dead are buried in the Lexington Cemetery.

Bryant's wife, Jane, is a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy, a national organization dedicated to honoring the memory and bravery of Confederate soldiers. In 1911, the group helped pay half of the $15,000 for the John Hunt Morgan statue. The state of Kentucky provided the other half of the money.

"I believe that I should honor and respect people that are buried on both sides," Jane Bryant said.

She believes the John Hunt Morgan statue and the one of John C. Breckinridge should stay right where they are.

“Because they're part of our history,” said Jane Bryant. “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."

"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,'” said DeBraun Thomas, founder of "Take Back Cheapside" which is leading the fight to remove the statues. "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. A poster advertising the auction is 1855 listed 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 were "strictly cash."

While newspaper accounts of the day the statues were unveiled, they don't mention any protest or dissent. Thomas believes there were many that day in Lexington who couldn't speak out.

"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," Thomas said.

While the Urban County Council voted to move the statues on August 17 to the Lexington Cemetery where both John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge are buried, a date hasn’t been set for the relocation.