Statues of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis have shared the same space in the Kentucky Capitol for more than 80 years, but only one of them was labeled a hero and a patriot — and it wasn’t Lincoln.
That changed earlier this month, when state officials secretly removed a plaque declaring the only president of the Confederacy to be a “Patriot-Hero-Statesman.” State officials announced the removal Thursday, making Kentucky the latest state to alter Confederate monuments following outbreaks of racially-motivated violence.
“There are some people who feel that his role as president of the Confederacy makes him ineligible to be described as a hero,” said Steve Collins, chairman of the Historic Properties Advisory Commission that governs the statue in the rotunda. “We wanted to give a … more objective look at all the things that he did in his career.”
The plaque adorned a 15-foot (4.5 meter) marble statue of Davis, which sits in a corner of the state’s ornate Capitol rotunda just behind a bronze likeness of Lincoln. Both men were born in Kentucky.
Advocates have been asking state officials to remove the Davis statue for years. Their protests gained momentum following the racially-motivated 2015 murders of nine people at an African-American church in South Carolina and again after last year’s violent protests at a white supremacist rally in Virginia.
The Historic Properties Advisory Commission, which governs the five statues in Kentucky’s rotunda, voted in 2015 to keep the Davis sculpture in place as a symbol of the state’s divided past. Kentucky never joined the Confederacy, but it had a number of Confederate sympathizers who attempted to set up a Confederate government in the western part of the state during the Civil War.
Last year, the commission voted to alter the statue by removing a plaque that says Davis was a “Patriot-Hero-Statesman” because they said the language was “subjective.” The commission then delayed that decision so a lawyer from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration could make sure the commission had authority to remove the plaque.
Division of Historic Properties Director Leslie Nigels said workers removed the plaque on March 11. That was a Sunday, when the Capitol was closed to the public.
Removing the plaque angered the Kentucky NAACP, whose leader said the statue does not belong in the Capitol at all.
“It doesn’t change what he was. It doesn’t change what he did. He committed treason,” said Raoul Cunningham, president of the Kentucky NAACP. “I wish I could say what I really thought but it’s not decent for print.”
The Lincoln statute was erected in 1911. The Davis statute came in 1936 after a fundraising campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the height of the Jim Crow era, when segregation laws proliferated throughout the South.
The original plan, according to the Kentucky Historical Society, was for the Lincoln statue to face north while the Davis statue faced South. The plan was abandoned because the statues were too heavy to be that close together.
The plaque in question was installed in 1975. It was a gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler was on hand to dedicate it.
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