Paducah area African American church leaders and the local N.A.A.C.P. are calling upon the city to remove the statue of Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman on Fountain Square.
An open letter published over the weekend suggests in its place installing a plaque that explains why the statue was removed and listing the names of slaves owned by Tilghman. The Lloyd Tilghman House Facebook page says he owned five slaves. The historic home is a museum in the city.
Members of the Paducah Area African American Methodist Episcopal Churches, local N.A.A.C.P., Community Clergy Fellowship and Community Coming Together signed the letter to the City of Paducah stating that "The vast majority of Black citizens in this city emphatically do not want to preserve the painful legacy of slavery and white supremacy" represented by the Tilghman statue.
Reverend Babydoll Kennedy of Burks Chapel AME Church was involved in writing the letter. "We came together to draft a letter because there was this, what we felt, a prevailing notion that the African American community in Paducah was not as concerned about the statue," she said.
The letter also calls the Confederate flag is a symbol of “hate” and points to the Facebook posts of Dylann Roof as an example. Roof killed nine members of an historically black church in Charleston in 2015.
The letter says unlike statues of President George Washington, Confederate monuments "serve only to keep national divisions alive while denigrating and dehumanizing Black citizens." Statues of Washington and Thomas Jefferson have been subject to "whataboutism," including in statements made by President Donald Trump.
J.W. Cleary is President of the Paducah McCracken County Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. He said the time is right for Paducah to follow other cities in removing statues. "When you start talking about places, even like Lexington, Kentucky - and of course Lexington, that was one of the biggest slave trades in the state of Kentucky was in Lexington. And if they're considering taking their monuments down then Paducah, we need to follow suit," he said.
Kennedy said one has to ask, "Why was the statue erected? Who is it honoring and what did they do that was honorable?" She said with enough money, it seems anyone can erect a statue of anybody, but when it's on public property then the city officials need to answer those questions.
The letter says the Confederate monuments were erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy as reminders of slavery and don't celebrate military heroes since "Tilghman graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point and the Confederacy lost the war." (The book Engineering Victory: How Technology Won the Civil War by Thomas F. Army Jr. states Tilghman graduated near the bottom of his class.)
Paducah City Commissioner Richard Abraham, who is African American, said in a meeting last month that he didn’t believe removing the statues would fix issues in the African American community. He said he would not take part in allowing the city to be "held hostage" by the "political flavor of the day." Abraham said, “Tearing down a statue that should serve as encouragement and motivation as to how far we have come as a nation will not fix one single thing."
Abraham’s comments followed the national debate over Confederate symbols and monuments, after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that involved a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The letter doesn't specifically mention Abraham, but refers to his comments, saying "This is not the 'flavor of the day.' We are talking about racism not Baskin Robbins. Baskin Robbins has 31 flavors. Racism doesn't. Racism is rooted in white supremacy, power, privilege, and hatred of people due to the color of their skin. Flavors are rooted in spices and artificial flavoring."
Kennedy said the letter wasn't about Abraham, "We weren't specifically referring to him. We're responding to the issue of the statue... We can't reduce our concern about the statue as something as something that was overnight."
The letter goes on to say, "We are not trying to erase history, as the statue does not contain any significant historical facts or truths worth repeating, we are trying to correct history by no longer rubbing salt in old wounds." It then calls for the removal of the statue and hopes for a monument, "listing all of the names of enslaved Africans who no one dared to mention, no one bothered to learn, and no one has yet to remember."
Kennedy said if the statue is moved to the Tilghman House, then a question becomes what to do with the existing base? "I think it gives us a prime opportunity to state the history of the Confederacy and why the statue was erected and then why it was removed. And then give voice to those who were marginalized by these actions. Give name to people whose names have been erased from history."
Cleary said of the city's monument to Martin Luther King and the newly-erected monument of Clarence "Big House" Gaines, "We want our kids, African American kids, to look around and see, hopefully get some positive points out of it, of what African Americans have done to help make this country what it is, also." He said kids should know about "negative history" but said it doesn't need to be glorified.
He expressed an optimism that city leaders will listen. "We live by that mentality that Martin Luther King talked about, as sitting down at the table of brotherhood and working something out," he said.
Kennedy was involved in a Concert Rally for Peace last summer that aimed to bring together the Black Lives Matter movement, local law enforcement, city officials and others. She said those conversations continue, but the message hasn't taken off as much as it should have. "Because unless we all come together and really start having the hard conversations then we're always going to sit around and try to come up with easy fixes for the problems." As for seeing those conversations come to fruition, she said it could start as small groups and expand outward, eventually bringing in those who may be reluctant. "We're not going to change the culture in two or three days, two or three years, what have you. We start with where we're at and go from there. A spark can turn into a small fire and it can ignite a community, eventually."
Along those lines, Cleary said, "You know, somewhere down the line we as Americans, whether you're black or white, we're going to have to learn to live together. But when you come to the table, you've got to come to the table with an open mind, willing to make some changes if you know that changes need to be made."
Alfred Anderson is the pastor of Greater Lincoln Heights Missionary Baptist Church and president of the Community Clergy Fellowship - a collection of pastors and ministers primarily in the local African American community. He said he is hopeful the statue will be moved to private property, "So that people don't have to drive by and be reminded of the hatred and all of the things that went on before."
"We have to understand that we're not going any place and we're all in this thing to stay," Anderson said, "And we've got to do everything we can to make life better for everyone. And all of us want the same thing... afforded an opportunity to go to work every day, make a living for ourselves and our families, buy a home, educate our children and be able to go on vacation once in awhile. We all pretty much want the same things... God only made one race and that's the human race."