FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) — A Kentucky panel voted Friday to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis from the state Capitol rotunda, a move that caps a years-long push to take down the monument to the former Confederate president.
The state Historic Properties Advisory Commission took action at a special meeting called by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who requested the vote on Thursday. That same day, a Republican state senator also pushed for the statue's removal.
The commission voted 11-1 to remove the statue and relocate it to a state park that commemorates Davis at his Fairview, Ky., birthplace. Workers appeared to be preparing for the removal late Friday afternoon.
Erected in 1936 with a mix of public and private funds, the statue has been at the heart of a contentious debate in Kentucky in recent years over Confederate symbolism and monuments in public spaces.
"Its purpose was as clear in the 1930s as it is today," said Cathy Thomas, a commission member. "The statue was placed to reaffirm a legacy of white supremacy -- aka the Confederacy -- at a time when black Kentuckians lived with threats of violence and lynchings and a system of segregation that denied us basic rights as American citizens."
Thomas, who is African American, said Davis "enslaved human beings. He rebelled against the United States of America. He is a symbol of a Confederacy that might still have me in chains."
Beshear's request comes amid a rapidly unfolding protest movement to remove Confederate monuments around the U.S. after the death of George Floyd. The black man died after a white Minneapolis police officer put his knee on the handcuffed man’s neck for several minutes, even after Floyd stopped pleading for air.
Beshear actively reached out to the commission's members, he told reporters this week, urging them to vote to remove the statue. He has called it divisive and a symbol to some children who visit the Capitol rotunda of the "enslavement of their ancestors."
In a statement Beshear said the commission's action marked a "historic day," and noted that the vote was bipartisan.
"Today is a move toward showing that everybody is welcome in this building and that our government should work for the betterment of every single Kentuckian – that we have systematic issues that we must address, but that now is the time to truly move forward, to truly make progress and to show that Team Kentucky includes every single Kentuckian," the governor said.
The lone dissenting vote was from commissioner Brandon T. Wilson, who accused Beshear of politicizing the issue.
"I come on this board with the intent to protect history. I didn't come on the board to remove history. I don't agree with it at all," he said. "And I understand. I understand that it's tough history, but that's the same with the United States. We all have a tough history."
He said he believes there is a "cultural movement trying to suppress other history. I advise everybody that we need to welcome all history -- good, bad, ugly."
But another commission member, Angela Lampe, argued that the statue is "divisive" and said there are other places for it that are more appropriate.
"We need to teach the history. That's not erasing history, but it does need to be removed from our state Capitol. It's not representative of all of our commonwealth," she said.
In 2015, after Confederate symbols were linked to the killings of nine black church members in South Carolina, the commission agreed to give the statue more historical context.
The 15-foot marble statue of Davis occupies a corner of the state’s ornate Capitol rotunda near a bronze likeness of Abraham Lincoln. Both men were born in Kentucky. The statues of the Civil War adversaries are among several on display there.
Advocates have for years been asking state officials to remove the Davis statue. In 2018, officials removed a plaque declaring the only president of the Confederacy to be a “Patriot-Hero-Statesman.”
The governor said the Davis statue, if removed, could end up at the Jefferson Davis state historic site in southern Kentucky where the Confederate leader was born.
In Richmond, Virginia, meanwhile, protesters on Wednesday night pulled down a century-old statue of Davis in the former capital of the Confederacy, adding it to the list of Old South monuments removed or damaged around the U.S. amid the protests.
Beshear said he expected robust discussion on what to do with the space if the Davis statue is moved. Options include having a permanent replacement, allowing a rotation of statues or leaving the space empty for more seating. The Rotunda is a popular rallying place when the legislature is in session.
Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel said Thursday that he is pre-filing a bill to replace the Davis statue with one of Kentucky native Carl Brashear, an African-American military hero and master diver in the US. Navy. Brashear had his story told in the movie “Men of Honor.”
“He led a life that all of us can be proud to tell our children about when we bring them through these hallowed halls,” McDaniel said.
His legislation would appropriate $500,000 for the commissioning and erection of the statue in the Capitol Rotunda.
Copyright 2020 by WDRB Media. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.