College historians say Jefferson Davis statue is offensive, must be removed
College and university historians in Kentucky say that a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the state’s Capitol rotunda promotes “miseducation,” even after the addition of a plaque explaining the statue’s historical context.
In a letter addressed to Democrat House Speaker Greg Stumbo and other members of the Kentucky Legislature, 72 historians representing 16 Kentucky colleges and universities expressed their “unambiguous opinion … [that] the statue offers a visceral and potent miseducation,” KY Forward reported Tuesday.
“The Davis statue conveys a powerful message,” the letter claims. “In the Rotunda, he is elevated in public space, on display as a beacon of Kentucky’s highest ideals.”
The statue of Davis is one of five such likenesses displayed in the Rotunda, alongside Davis’ Civil War counterpart Abraham Lincoln (who, like Davis, was born in the state), prominent 19th century politician Henry Clay, surgical pioneer Ephraim McDowell, and vice president Alben Barkley.
Earlier this month, the state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted 7-2 against removing the Davis statue from the rotunda, roughly paralleling the results of a poll taken shortly before the vote, in which 73 percent of Kentuckians said they favor keeping the statue in its current location. The commission opted instead to add a description of the statue’s “educational context” for the benefit of visitors.
“Yet rather than honoring the past, the statue offers a visceral and potent miseducation,” the historians charge in their letter. “The statue is not a neutral evocation of facts, but an act of interpretation that depicts Davis as a hero with an honorable cause.”
Commission chairman Steve Collins, however, told Fox News that he believes the Davis statue helps to illustrate an important aspect of Kentucky history.
“I bet we are the only capitol rotunda in United States where you can walk in to see a statue of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln in that proximity,” Collins said, adding that the juxtaposition “speaks volumes about the divide that Kentucky felt during the Civil War. Removing the statue of Jefferson Davis makes it impossible for us to tell that story the way that we can tell it with both statues there.”
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear offered a similar appraisal in a statement reacting to the commission’s vote, saying it is “critical” to acknowledge the statue’s significance in the context of the Civil War.
“Kentucky played a unique historical role as the birthplace of the presidents of both sides of the conflict,” Beshear said, adding, “We must ensure that dark chapter of our nation’s past serves to educate in ways that ensure such a tragedy can never happen again.”
The historians opposing the Davis statue, though, maintain that the compromise solution is inadequate.
“A bit of text that is easily overlooked or ignored, lacking in graphic impact, and accessible only with effort cannot undo the more powerful falsehoods conveyed by the statue,” they argue. “On the one hand, the statute celebrates Davis as an eminently honorable man, while on the other a plaque would inevitably inform visitors that he defended a brutal system of human bondage, committed treason against the United States, and helped start the bloodiest war in our history.”
The letter refrains from suggesting an alternative home for the statue, but Carolyn Dupont, an associate professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University who claims to have spearheaded the letter-writing effort, told The Lexington Herald-Leader that she and her associates support moving it to a museum. The historians also say they “stand ready to help select a worthy alternative,” should the need arise.
Speaker Stumbo has not commented on the letter, but had already expressed support for removing the statue before it was sent, saying earlier this month that he plans to introduce legislation in January to move the Davis statue to the Kentucky History Center in downtown Frankfort.
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