FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Draped in a shawl of the American flag, Jeannette Stephens came to the Kentucky state Capitol last week because she believes a 15-foot-tall, marble sculpture of Jefferson Davis does not belong in a public rotunda.

“I’m not knocking the fact that it is history,” Stephens, of Hardin County, said just before the start of a rally organized by African-American leaders. “But it should be in a history museum.”

The statue emphasizes that Davis, a former member of the U.S. House and Senate, served as the Confederacy’s only president. A plaque describes the native Kentuckian as a “PATRIOT – HERO – STATESMAN.” But critics of the monument called for its removal at Wednesday’s rally, arguing that it instead symbolizes racism and white supremacy.

The fresh debate over the Davis sculpture comes as communities across the U.S. revisit the relevance and meaning of Confederate monuments and symbols. The planned removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., attracted a protest last month by white nationalists in that city, where a man rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.

Since then, in Kentucky, Lexington’s city-county council voted to relocate two monuments to Confederate officers from city property. After a statue of Confederate soldier John Breckinridge Castleman near Cherokee Park was vandalized, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer ordered a citywide review of public art for pieces that “could be interpreted to honor bigotry, discrimination, racism and/or slavery.”

Louisville’s public art commission has scheduled a public meeting on the review for 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Old Jail Building. 514 West Liberty Street.

More Kentuckians served with Union forces than joined the Confederate fight for secession. Even so, in the decades after the war, monuments to the Southern side outstripped those erected to the Northern cause to keep the union intact.

From 1895 to 1925, for example, historian Anne Marshall has documented 27 Confederate memorials that were added across the state, compared with just three honoring the Union during the same time.

Supporters of taking down Confederate monuments have raised the idea in a handful of other Kentucky cities -- including Paducah, where there are competing petitions to keep and remove a statue of Gen. Lloyd Tilghman -- but no campaigns gave gained as much traction as those as Louisville and Lexington.

The movement to bring down statues linked to Confederate leaders and officers has raised a series of questions about how history is remembered in public spaces. Who approved the statues and paid for them? Why were they built? What do they stand for explicitly and tacitly? How have other nations handled monuments to occupations, civil wars or oppressive regimes?

Many of the Confederate statues in Kentucky, and across the U.S., went up decades after the Civil War during an era of state-sanctioned segregation, or “Jim Crow,” laws, violence against blacks and a “nostalgic feeling” about the Southern cause, said Tom Owen, an archivist at the University of Louisville and former Metro Council member.

“Historians were looking back at the Civil War -- white historians – and thinking a lot less about a war to save slavery by the South, but instead kind of an ideological war about states’ rights versus national authority,” he said.

In many cases, Owen said, there was no input from African-Americans, Union veterans and others when statues were raised on public land. In one instance, he noted that the city of Louisville allowed a privately-funded monument to Confederate veterans to be built on public right of way in 1895; the statue near the University of Louisville was taken down last year and loaned to Brandenburg, Ky.

“It is not unusual, I think, that as new voices come to the table and new conditions present themselves that there should be a community discussion -- sometimes rancorous – about the removal (of statues) to another place, I hope,” Owen said.

Public opinion was split on the meaning of Confederate statues in a poll conducted after the Charlottesville violence, although a majority of people surveyed did not equate them with racism.

By a 2-to-1 ratio, those interviewed in the national survey by the Economist and YouGov said they viewed statues of Lee and other Confederate war figures more as symbols of “Southern pride” than as emblems of racism. The survey included 1,500 people.

But those opinions diverged based on race and political affiliation. For example, 66 percent of whites identified such statues as symbols of “Southern pride,” while 47 percent of blacks considered them racist icons. Only 8 percent of Republicans viewed the statues as racist, compared with 48 percent of Democrats.

Confederate statues are “a part of history. It’s the history of our country,” said John Suttles, Kentucky division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nonprofit organization of veterans’ descendants.

“There’s no monuments to slavery,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’re all to dead soldiers and their belief in what the Constitution stated on their fight for liberty.”

Suttles acknowledged that “slavery was an issue” that caused the war, but he said “to take down anything that is a part of our history is not going to improve life for anyone.”

Louisville review

In Louisville, the Castleman statue was found splattered with orange paint on August 13, the morning after the Charlottesville violence. That same day, Fischer ordered the review of it and all other art on public property.

The public art commission, whose 10 members include artists, elected leaders, art professors and museum curators, will review hundreds of pieces ranging from statues to portraits in city buildings at the upcoming meeting, said Sarah Lindgren, Louisville’s public art administrator. The panel also will accept citizens’ input on the city’s collection.

Asked about a specific criteria to determine whether artwork could be deemed racist or honoring slavery, Lindgren reiterated Fischer’s charge to the commission and said: “I think the definition that’s been given by the mayor is the criteria.”

Among the statues on public property are Henry Clay, the 19th century Lexington statesman and slave owner, who greets visitors to Metro Hall; a bust of Castleman at the Highlands branch of the Louisville Free Public Library; and a statue of York, who was a slave when he aided William Clark and Meriwether Lewis during their westward journey.

Republican Glen Stuckel, the Metro Council’s representative on the commission, said the York statue shows how defining public art may be in the eye of the beholder.

“He was a slave. Now, when somebody looks at that statue do they think of slavery or do they think of the man and what he contributed to the Lewis and Clark expeditions? It’s hard to say. I guess it’s in each person’s mind,” he said.

“So I think we’re going to be very careful about what we say to the mayor about these particular things,” he said.

Commission member Cathy Shannon, director of marketing and public relations for the E&S Gallery on 10th Street, said now is the time to conduct a citywide review.

“I think any racially charged images certainly bear looking at, and I commend the mayor for having that vision to go ahead and approach this and not put it off any further,” she said. 

Thus far, most of the focus has been on the Castleman statue.

Castleman, who was briefly banished from the United States for his role in a wartime plot against the Union, founded the Louisville Parks Department and was a parks commissioner, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia. He also was the first president of the American Saddlebred Horse Association.

He wrote in his 1917 memoir, “Active Service,” of the “ties of affection that existed between the master and the slave in Kentucky families.” Remembered for his role with the parks system, Castleman also segregated tennis courts at Cherokee Park, author Eric Burnette has noted.

But Owen, the U of L archivist, said he believes the Castleman statue should be “way down the line” in any debate.

“For me, the defining issue should be: Did you, and is this statute primarily honoring you, or that Confederate cause which was clearly part of an enterprise to split up this nation and to turn against this nation for the purpose of saving slavery?” Owen said.

In making that determination, Owen said, people should look critically at a monument and ask: Is the figure depicted in military garb? Holding a weapon? Did an interest group tied to the war’s history pay for it?

“It seems to me that the Castleman statue is operating with a different set of criteria,” he said.

The Davis debate

The rally in Frankfort last week specifically called on Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to remove the Jefferson Davis statue, which speakers called a symbol of racism and white supremacy that doesn’t deserve its public place.

It was the latest in an ongoing effort, led by African-American leaders, to remove the statue erected in 1936 with private funds and $5,000 from the state – about $91,000 in 2017 dollars.

In 2004, a resolution to place the statue in the Kentucky History Center died in a House committee. In 2015, after Confederate symbols were linked to the killings of nine black church members in South Carolina, the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission agreed to give the statue more historical context.

In July, some two years later, the commission appointed a seven-member panel to begin the work of providing that additional interpretation.

Bevin, who called for the statue’s removal as a candidate for governor in 2015, did not respond to a request for comment about last week’s rally. Last month, however, he called removing Confederate monuments from government property a “sanitization of history,” and said the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission has the final say over statues in the Capitol.

(First Lady Glenna Bevin is among the commission’s members, according to its website.)

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, said last week he would seek to remove the statue through legislation filed in the 2018 General Assembly if it’s still in the rotunda when lawmakers convene next January.

Among those organizing the rally was the state’s black legislative caucus, all of whom are Democrats. But some Republicans also have called for the statue to go, including state Senators Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville and Wil Schroeder of Wilder; Treasurer Allison Ball; and former Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

Besides the Davis statue at the Capitol, a 351-foot-tall obelisk to the Confederate president stands in his Fairview, Ky., birthplace at a park operated by Kentucky state government on the border of Todd and Christian counties.

Mike Foster, the Christian County Attorney, said he not only believes the Davis statue has no place in the Capitol, but that the park ought to be broadened to more than just a shrine to the former Confederate leader and emphasize the role slavery played in the war’s origins. 

“We need to remember the ugly part of it,” said Foster, a Democrat. “I think that needs to be repurposed.”

Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825,, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2017 WDRB News. All rights reserved.