A year after removal from Capitol, is there a KY home for Jefferson Davis statue?

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Somewhere in a secure, undisclosed location in Central Kentucky rests a 15-foot marble statue of Jefferson Davis. He was the lone president of the Confederacy, a group of 11 breakaway states from 1861 to 1865 that relied upon Black slaves of African descent for their economies, and a believer that Black people were inferior to white people.

After being on prominent display in Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda for 84 years, the statue was hastily removed last June 13 amid much controversy. It would be moved to a historic state site in Western Kentucky where Davis was born once the site was prepared, officials said at the time.

A year later, the relocation of the statue that Gov. Andy Beshear called “a divisive symbol” is in doubt. It may stay under wraps for a long time.

“The Jefferson Davis statute remains stored in a secure, undisclosed location at this time,” Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the state Finance and Administration Cabinet, said this week.

She said no details about relocating the statue have been finalized.

The state Historic Properties Advisory Commission, which oversees statues in the Capitol, voted 11-1 last June to move the statue out of the Capitol and relocate it at the Davis historic site at Fairview on the Todd-Christian counties line.

The Democratic governor recommended the removal, along with Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Beshear campaigned against the statue in the Capitol in the 2019 race for governor and momentum to remove it accelerated last year with protests in Kentucky and elsewhere against racial injustice, especially with the deaths by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Asked why no action has been taken to relocate the statue, Midkiff said, “Transferring the statue to the Jefferson Davis Historic Site requires costly structural reinforcements to accommodate the size and weight of the statue. Due to the necessary improvements that would be required at the Jefferson Davis Historic Site, the commonwealth is evaluating the feasibility of this option.”

State dollars are not available at this time to move the statue to Fairview.

The projected cost to move the statue to the historic site exceeds the park’s fiscal year budget of $236,000, said Danielle Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, which oversees the state’s parks system. She did not provide a specific dollar amount for the projected cost.

“Additional funding for park-specific projects is prioritized based upon life safety, severity of need, and structural deficiencies. Due to ongoing maintenance requirements, additional funding for Jefferson Davis State Historic Site is not available at this time,” said Jones.

John Suttles of Paducah, past president of the Kentucky division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said no action on a new location for the Davis statue is “evidence of more of their typical lies.”

“Why lie to the taxpayers? Beshear and his gang’s efforts were directed at just getting the statue out of the Capitol. They are not going to do anything about relocating it. It never should have been moved out of the Capitol in the first place,” said Suttles, who said he celebrates June 3 as Davis’ birthday.

“It’s sad, very sad to deal with history that way,” he said. “Jefferson Davis is part of our history. He fought in the Mexican-American War, was in Congress and U.S. secretary of war at one time. We should not destroy our history.”

Workers use a crane to remove the Jefferson Davis statue from the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Saturday, June 13, 2020.
Workers use a crane to remove the Jefferson Davis statue from the Kentucky state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Saturday, June 13, 2020.

Todd County Judge-Executive Todd Mansfield said Fairview “seems to be the appropriate place for the statue if it is not going to be destroyed but we haven’t heard anything from the state about it.”

The county official also said he has heard little public discussion since last year “when some people here said bring it here and some said they didn’t want it.”

A 351-foot concrete obelisk commemorating Davis stands at the Fairview site. It was completed in 1924. Shortly before the site’s unveiling as a public park, the Ku Klux Klan was allowed to burn a large cross atop the obelisk.

There also have been no decisions made about what should replace the Davis statue it in the Capitol, Midkiff said.

Beshear said last year that consideration will be given to what, if anything, will fill the space the statue occupied. Several suggestions have been made, ranging from heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali to Black journalist Alice Dunnigan of Russellville.

“Over the course of the last 14 months, the state Capitol has been closed to visitors and tour groups due to COVID-19,” Midkiff said. “A broad and inclusive discussion regarding what may fill that corner of the Rotunda has been prevented by COVID, as well.”

Removal of the Davis statue from the Capitol was swift once the official decision to get it out was made.

American Industrial Contractors, a Lexington company, began work on removing the statue for $225,000 within hours of the historic properties commission’s vote.

The statue was out of the Capitol the next day. It was placed there in December 1936 at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the height of so-called “Jim Crow” state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the southern United States.

Tom Bennington, head of the moving company, recently said the move went smoothly but his company got “some negative comments” on its Facebook page.

“They called us ‘statue thieves,’ things like that,” he said. “I just say we are in the moving business, not politics.”

Artifacts were found in the base of the Davis statue. They were a piece of paper, a newspaper and an empty bottle of Glenmore Kentucky straight Bourbon whiskey.

Midkiff said this week that the note was dated Oct. 20, 1936, and contained a list of names. They include a reporter, a prisoner, an electrician and then-Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler.

The names, Midkiff said, are believed to be people on the site before the Davis statue was placed on the base. They also could have been people who helped move the base of the statue into place.

The newspaper, said Midkiff, was the Oct. 20, 1936, edition of The State Journal in Frankfort. The front-page headline reports on the Spanish Civil War: “Azana Moves on Barcelona.”

The artifacts are “currently being stored safely” at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort, she said.

For years, Raoul Cunningham, with the Louisville NAACP, and the late Democratic state Sen. Georgia Davis Powers of Louisville, who was the first person of color and the first woman elected to the Kentucky Senate, lobbied to remove the Davis statue from the Kentucky Capitol. She died in February 2016 of congestive heart failure at the age of 92.

Powers said the statue was offensive and tantamount to flying the Confederate flag over the state Capitol, that it never should have been placed in Kentucky’s seat of government.

When the statue was removed last year, Cunningham was pleased.

He bought a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of champagne and headed to Sen. Powers’ grave at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.

“I had not been there since she died. I just could not go back. But I had to with news of the statue gone,” said Cunningham.

He said he placed the flowers on the grave and “drank a little of the champagne to celebrate.”

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