Seventy-two history professors in Kentucky have signed a letter to the Historic Properties Advisory Commission of Kentucky calling for the removal of the statue of the controversial Jefferson Davis in the capitol rotunda in Frankfort to a museum. Todd Hatton speaks with two history professors at Murray State University who signed the letter, Dr. Duane Bolin and Dr. David Pizzo who argue for a contextual understanding of Davis and explain Kentucky's distinct position as a state on both sides of the Civil War.
Dr. Bolin says that the letter calls for the removal of the statue from the rotunda, not the destruction of the statue, and suggests moving it to the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort, where it will be seen by thousands more visitors. He says the capitol rotunda in Frankfort is a place to honor Kentuckians who have made significant contributions to the Commonwealth's history (statues of Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Ephraim McDowell, Alben Barkley and Jefferson Davis), and he points out that all of Davis' biographers, particularly William J. Cooper who wrote "Jefferson Davis, American," writes that Davis himself considered himself not a Kentuckian but a Mississippian. Though he was born in Kentucky in 1808 and studied at Transylvania University in Lexington, he moved to Mississippi and from then on considered himself to be a Mississippian. Dr. Bolin says he served as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce and was a war hero in the U.S.-Mexican War, when his "home state" of Mississippi seceded, he sided with the South and joined the Confederacy, rising to become president. Dr. Bolin argues that Davis didn't make a significant contribution specifically to Kentucky's history and yet he's being honored as such.
Todd Hatton asks about the statue of Robert E. Lee in Murray, despite Lee never having actually been in this part of Kentucky (except perhaps going past it while he was in the Army Corps of Engineers). Dr. Pizzo says many of these statues are a product of the era after the Civil War, the so-called "Lost Cause" movement where Kentucky had "buyers remorse" for staying in the Union during the war. With the rise of segregation and Jim Crow, Kentucky became a part of that and consigned itself to the Confederacy after the war.
Hatton asks if there's a discord when most people seem to let these symbols and statues fade into the background until someone says 'maybe we should think of getting rid of it.' Dr. Bolin adds that the South lost the war and the statue, flag, etc. is likened to a "finger" against what had happened, "It's a finger not just a symbol," he says. Dr. Pizzo says the symbols tap into a general feeling of pathos and fear about America and the South changing. He recalls the Somali mosque that was proposed in Mayfield and the fear and apprehension that politicians tap into, general feelings of being "besieged, flooded, surrounded" he says beyond Confederacy but 'white male America' in general.
Approximately 100,000 Kentuckians fought for the Union and 40,000 for the Confederacy, Dr. Bolin says. He cites historian E. Merton Coulter who said Kentucky only seceded after the Civil War, turning southward. Dr. Bolin says this had a lot to do with Union occupation and atrocities particularly by General Stephen G. Burbridge, the Great Hog Swindle and executions by the Union of the state. This reviled so many Kentuckians during Union occupation that many turned against the Union in the waning years of the social war that continued in the years after the Civil War.
Hatton asks about the line of reasoning where one defends the personal or institutional display of the battle flag as a way to honor family heritage - not hate. Dr. Pizzo says when it comes to the flag, it didn't become a symbol of Southern identity until Civil Rights. It's widespread appearance didn't date to 1866-1890 but rather the last major era in America where there was friction and racial tension, he says. Dr. Bolin says many Southerners have family heritage on the Confederate side of the war, and that it's a very personal thing. But he says one has to remember that the symbol is very powerful for African Americans as well. White Southerners are protective of their own family heritage, so why not be sensitive to the family heritage of thousands of African Americans as well and be empathetic or sympathetic, he says, adding that over 23,000 African Americans fought for the Union in Kentucky.
Dr. Pizzo says there are many historical situations where one can condemn the macro event, the symbology and structures that created those situations. He says there are other countries that have had very difficult periods that involved mass complicity and mass involvement, and that there's a way to condemn the phenomena while respecting your family members and admitting that they were fallible and human. Dr. Bolin adds that it's "not that they were the bad guy." They fought for hearth and home, he says, for reasons other than slavery. Though, he says, it's hard to overlook Jefferson Davis' documents and the clause in the Constitution of the Confederate States that call for the protection of slavery.
Hatton says so far the Historic Properties Advisory Commission of Kentucky has decided to let the statue stay where it is. Dr. Bolin says it's not a matter of political correctness, but points out that the five statues in the rotunda are all white men and there are none to honor the contributions of African Americans and women. He cites Linda Neville who founded the Kentucky Society for the Prevention of Blindness, or Madeline McDowell Breckinridge or Laura Clay. Or prominent African American Kentuckians Muhammad Ali or Isaac Murphy, the famous black jockey who dominated the Kentucky Derby. Dr. Pizzo says Kentucky is changing and we need to find things from our history that speak to wider groups of people.
Editorial Note: WKMS will air a rebuttal by members of the Kentucky Sons of Confederate Veterans at a date yet to be determined.