Castleman statue dominates first meeting on Louisville public art
The city's public art commission held its first meeting Wednesday as it reviews hundreds of works of public art for pieces that can be seen as honoring racism, bigotry, discrimination or slavery.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Louisville’s public art commission took the first step Wednesday toward reviewing hundreds of works of public art for pieces that can be seen as honoring racism, bigotry, discrimination or slavery.
About 30 people spoke at the first of several planned public meetings meant to gather input on statues, monuments, paintings and other art that the city owns or licenses. The commission took no action.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer sought the review after a statue of John Breckinridge Castleman, who served as a Confederate officer, was vandalized the same weekend as white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the planned removal of a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Although Fischer ordered an evaluation of all public art, time and again speakers at Wednesday’s meeting singled out the Castleman monument near Cherokee Park. Most people who addressed the commission appeared to support keeping the statue, while a minority was in favor of removing it or making other changes.
“As for the Castleman monument, it’s not a Confederate monument,” Richard Werking said. “Gen. John Castleman is depicted in civilian clothes, not in military uniform. The location on Cherokee Parkway obviously honors his horsemanship and his work in the Louisville parks system.”
Castleman was a Louisville parks commissioner and founder of the American Saddlebred Horse Association. As a Confederate soldier, he was sentenced to death for his role in a plot to burn Union supply boats but was spared from execution, exiled from the U.S and later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. He served in the U.S. Army later in life.
Bill Nixon, who said he lives near the statue, urged the commission to look at each work of art individually. In the case of the Castleman monument, he said, it doesn’t glorify the Confederacy.
“Distinguishing the Castleman statue from a (Confederate general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) Nathan Bedford Forrest statue is something we need to do,” he said.
Several speakers stressed Castleman’s achievements after the war and questioned any emphasis on his service in the Confederacy, which some noted he joined as a teenager.
“He’s a transitional figure in Louisville’s racial history – a bridge between the enlightened paternalists that we all respect as the Founding Fathers and the heroes of the civil rights movement,” James Prichard said. “For this alone, he should be treated with respect.”
Aaron Spalding, who said he is a veteran of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, praised Castleman as a fellow veteran.
“In both those countries, me and my brothers and sisters fought to restore democracy to foreign nations and foreign peoples,” Spalding told the commission. “I’m here to honor John B. Castleman, one of my brothers and fellow veterans who fought to restore democracy” during the Spanish-American War.
But others suggested the statue needs to be moved and questioned the public veneration of Castleman.
“Castleman joined the 19th century movement to reunite the country – so long as northerners recognized Jim Crow practices and the folly of implementing racial equality,” historian Emily Bingham said.
She said the Kentucky Horse Park may be a better place for the statue.
Another speaker, Donny Greene, said it was “mind boggling” to hear the amount of support for Castleman and his statue.
“The whitewashing of John Castleman’s history by all of the people in this room is nothing short of racist,” Greene said. “There’s no other way to put it. He was a traitor to this country.”
Ahead of the meeting, Fischer’s office released more than 800 comments submitted through and online form and by email.
Commission chair Anna Tatman said in the coming weeks the panel will announce up to four additional public meetings in different parts of the city. Meanwhile, people can continue to submit comments.
“We have embarked on a very complicated conversation, a discussion that’s going to take a lot of patience and a lot of information,” she said.
Several commission members said they’d like to have specific criteria in place as they review the city’s art. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Tatman said “a set of criteria in and of itself would be difficult to create, but we’ll be looking at some aspects of measuring … a rational result.”
She said she is hopeful recommendations can be sent to Fischer within a year.
No African Americans addressed the commission. But the commission’s sole black member, Cathy Shannon of E&S Gallery on 10th Street, spoke to the panel about the Castleman statue in particular.
“From my perspective, it was hard hearing this monument and the person that it represented being glorified,” she said, adding that, for many people, similar monuments represent “the worst time in this country.”
The Cherokee Triangle Association hasn’t taken a formal position on the Castleman statue in its neighborhood, said Jerry Lyndrup, an association member.
Metro Council member Brandon Coan, whose 8th District includes the statue, attended Wednesday’s meeting and said he hasn’t made up his mind on what ought to happen to the Castleman statue.
“I don’t think it’s such a clear answer at this point,” said Coan, a Democrat. “But I don’t think the statue as it exists today deserves to remain as it exists today.”