Should Kentucky Remove the Jeff Davis Statue from its Capitol?

JDStatKY

Seventy-two history professors in the Commonwealth of Kentucky signed a letter urging the state to remove Jefferson Davis’ statue from the state capitol building [story here]. In the letter, sent to the state legislators, the governor, and the Historical Properties Advisory Commission, the professors said having the Davis statue in the capitol “minimizes the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, downplays the human suffering of millions and endows the Southern cause with a nobility it does not deserve.”

Carol Dupont, associate professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University, was the driving force behind the letter. Two professors in the state did not sign the letter. According to Professor Dupont, “They basically saw it as trying to erase history, when it is actually an attempt to be sure what persons are put in a position of honor.” Personally, I think a professor of history ought to be smarter than to think moving a statue is erasing history.

The Historical Properties Advisory Commission appointed a committee to provide historical context for the statues in the capitol. The seventy-two professors aren’t satisfied with commission’s plan. In the letter, they wrote, “On the one hand, the statute celebrates Davis as an eminently honorable man, while on the other a plaque would inevitably inform visitors that he defended a brutal system of human bondage, committed treason against the United States, and helped start the bloodiest war in our history.”

The professors would like to see the statue moved to a museum. The speaker of the state House of Representatives said he would introduce a bill to move the statue to the Kentucky History Center. This year there are three major candidates for governor, a Republican, a Democrat, and an Independent, and all three support moving the statue.

Depending on what the plaque said, I’d be happy with a plaque providing historical context, considering Davis was born in Kentucky and served as US Secretary of War in addition to being a US Senator from Mississippi. Having said that, though, I also wouldn’t be upset with the statue being moved to the Kentucky History Center.

What do you think?

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10 comments

  1. I, too am a Kentuckian. I say leave it where it is, but offer a plaque or signage about his time as a Confederate. Moving it to a museum is not unacceptable, but I think leaving it where it is with updated interpretation might be more visible and perhaps more powerful. I suspect seeing a statue in the Capitol might be a different experience for people than seeing it in a museum with many other artifacts, though that is speculation.

    Kentucky was in a pretty unique position during the war and I think the Davis statue can help tell that story, probably better where it is than in the history center

    1. Thanks for providing your perspective on this.

  2. jfepperson · · Reply

    I, too, am very ambivalent. (I also grew up in KY, long ago; well, became a teenager—it is an open question whether I ever grew up at all 😉 ) Davis is mostly associated with his life in Mississippi, due to his political career there. Richard’s idea is fine with me, but I think there is an issue having the statue in the state capitol—it is an expression of a position on the issue by the state government, and I think the current state government might want to re-think being associated with that position.

    A speaker to my CWRT some years ago said that Kentucky waited until after the war to join the Confederacy. 🙂

    1. I’ve heard that little joke about Kentucky and the confederacy from a couple of folks, Jim. Most recently it was Jack Davis.

      Can we consider the part of the capitol that has the statues to be a quasi-museum showcasing notable Kentuckians?

  3. I haven’t been to the capital in years, so am not familiar with the setup.

    It’s a good point about the current government not wanting to be associated with Davis, so I can understand if they move it. As long as it stays on display and is not destroyed or just hidden in storage, I am fine with it.

    As for Kentucky, I cannot recommend the book Creating a Confederate Kentucky by Anne Marshall nearly enough. It’s outstanding – at least it was for me – and shows why the “Kentucky joined the CSA after the war” narrative came into being. Confederate monuments were part of the process.

    1. Anne’s book is on my shelf and I’ll review it some point in the future.

  4. BorderRuffian · · Reply

    “Seventy-two history professors in the Commonwealth of Kentucky signed a letter urging the state to remove Jefferson Davis’ statue from the state capitol building….
    ….Two professors in the state did not sign the letter.”

    You misread the article. It says:

    “The only responses against the letter, she said, came from the history faculty of University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg and one University of Louisville history professor.”

    …but non-signers didn’t have to send in a reply.

    The combined history departments of Kentucky, Louisville, and Western Kentucky alone have more than 72 (or 74) on their faculties.

    1. I’m sure you think you’ve found a major point. I didn’t say there were only 74 history professors in the state, so it’s you who have misread. Indeed, as the article says, it was only sent to the major colleges and universities in the state. Nowhere does it say it was sent to every historian in those major colleges and universities. If I were sending it, I’d send it to those whose expertise was in US 19th Century history, and I assume the authors felt the same way. I did say there were two in the state who did not sign, and we know that because they sent negative responses. Nothing in the article says it was sent to any professors who ignored it, so we don’t know of any others who didn’t sign it and have no evidence at hand of any others who didn’t sign it. Thanks for playing, anyway.

  5. First, I’d like to say long time viewer, first time poster.

    As a Kentuckian I’d like to say that I fully agree and support Dr. DuPont and her work. As a History major at Eastern Kentucky University I had the privilege of taking her course on the history of religion in the U.S. It comes as no surprise after taking her course
    that she’d be a leader in this effort.

    Removing Davis from the rotunda does nothing to erase history, as Dr. DuPont says it’s about being more circumspect in who we honor in a location where the General Assembly debates legislation for all Kentuckians.

    I think an apt replacement for Davis would be a statue honoring a someone who served the United States in that war being three Kentuckians donned blue for every one in gray. I thought maybe MG Robert Anderson, MG John Buford or a USCT soldier would do superbly in replacement (the IndyCar fan in me would also suggest Danny Sullivan, this state’s only Indianapolis 500 winner even though I never cared for him as a driver).

    We’ll see how it turns out though as the tide’s turning against the Lost Cause Myth in Kentucky. I’m glad to see it for one.

    Once again thank you for your blog, your book reviews are outstanding. I just finished Hardtack and Coffee and have Recollections of a Private in the queue on my Kindle.

    (Also as a bit of an aside, I briefly served under COL Siedule of the Prager University video fame. He was commander of 3/81 Armor and I wasn’t there long before he PCS’d. In the change of command ceremony the brigade commander stated we were all privileged to serve in the battalion during “The Time of Siedule.” I see that it’s still going on at even higher levels.)

    Jerry Sudduth Jr.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jerry. I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

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