Jefferson Davis's statue will remain in Capitol Rotunda with greater emphasis on historical context

08/05/2015 07:06 PM

FRANKFORT – The 15-foot marble rendering of Confederate President Jefferson Davis will remain in the Capitol Rotunda but with a greater emphasis on the historical context on his and others’ statues, the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission decided in a special meeting Wednesday.

The commission received about 3,000 public comments from June 24 through July 29, with 1,800 in favor of keeping Davis’s statue in the Rotunda versus 1,225 who supported its removal.

Despite politicians like U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, gubernatorial candidates Jack Conway and Matt Bevin and others calling for the statue’s relocation in the aftermath of racially charged deadly shootings in Charleston, S.C., the latest Bluegrass Poll for the Lexington Herald-Leader, Courier-Journal, WHAS-TV and WKYT-TV found 73 percent of respondents favored keeping Davis’s likeness where it stands.

The commission voted 7-2 to keep the statue in the Rotunda and improve public awareness of each of the five men depicted in the space, which includes former President Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay and former Vice President Alben Barkley.

That action followed a motion to remove Davis’s statue, which failed because no one on the panel seconded it.

Steven Collins, chairman of the commission, said he had read more about Davis in the past 30 days than he had in his entire life. The Finance and Administration Cabinet provided reporters a large sample of responses, which range from lengthy letters to single sentences.

While some on the panel argued that Davis serves as a stark reminder of slavery and should be moved elsewhere, others said removing the Confederate president’s likeness wouldn’t change history, but rather ignore it.

Collins called the Civil War “one of the most defining moments” in American and Kentucky history in discussing Davis’s historical significance.

“Kentucky really probably has the most unusual and interesting Civil War history and the most divided Civil War history of any state in the entire union,” he said, “and I would bet that we are the only Capitol Rotunda in the United States where you can walk in and see a statue of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln in that proximity, and that speaks volumes about the divide that Kentucky felt during the Civil War.”

Removing the statue would make “it impossible for us to tell that story the way that we could tell it with both statues there,” he added.

Gov. Steve Beshear, who had called on the commission to review its policies concerning Rotunda displays, called the addition of historical context “critical” in framing discussion of Davis’s role in history.

“The generations to come must understand the enormous toll of the Civil War that tore apart this nation and the tragic issue of slavery at the root of that war,” Beshear said in a statement.

“Kentucky played a unique historical role as the birthplace of the presidents of both sides of the conflict. We must ensure that dark chapter of our nation’s past serves to educate in ways that ensure such a tragedy can never happen again.”

But Raoul Cunningham, president of the NAACP’s Kentucky chapter, said the commission erred in its judgement. His group will seek legislative action on the Davis statue’s removal, he said.

“I agree that there needs to be education, but I don’t think you need a statue of Hitler in the state Capitol to discuss the ills of Nazism or the Holocaust,” Cunningham said. “You don’t need a statue to discuss what history should be or educational values. Therefore, we still think that the statue should be removed.”

To drive his point home, Cunningham read an excerpt from the Frankfort State-Journal published the day after the Davis statue was unveiled in the Rotunda in December 1936.

In the article, former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler said Davis “is not dead.”

“He still lives in the heart of the people and will continue with this statue,” Cunningham read, quoting Chandler. “… That was after he (Davis) had died, and I think that symbolizes what that statue represents. It represents more than an educational tool.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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