Historical research sheds light on Confederate statues

Published 1:10 pm Saturday, October 21, 2017


Kentucky Historical Society

In Lexington, there are now holes in the ground where the statues of John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan once stood.

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The removal of these statues has some residents angry. They say this is “erasing history.” Others call it a “cultural cleansing” and liken it to the burning of history books.

With the Breckinridge statue installed in 1887 and the Morgan memorial dedicated in 1911, historians have contended that they were placed to reinforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. Others disagree. For them, the statues simply honored two Confederate officers.

In light of such divergent opinions, can historical research show the original intent behind these monuments? The answer is: Yes.

In 1887, thousands of people attended the John C. Breckinridge statue dedication on the courthouse grounds next to “Cheapside,” an area of Lexington that had been a major slave auction site before the Civil War.

Patriotic music, including “America” and the “Star Spangled Banner,” was played. Ministers prayed. Speakers — mostly former Confederate officers — lauded Breckinridge, who had been a Kentucky legislator, member of Congress, U.S. vice president, Confederate general and the Southern secretary of war. These public officials struck a tone of reconciliation between the North and South. No rebel flags waved.

The Lexington Daily Press wrote that the city should change the name of Cheapside to “Breckinridge Square.” This article, found while I was conducting historical research, also provided clarity about the intent of the monument.

With the Breckinridge statue installed at Cheapside — an auction site where thousands of enslaved men, women and children had been sold — the Daily Press now saw Cheapside as hallowed ground.

“We don’t want any more negro drays and spring wagons gathered on Cheapside,” the Daily Press wrote. “It’s too sacred now for them.”

This research shows that, despite patriotic songs and speeches about reconciliation, speakers were not calling for a reunion among all Kentuckians. Instead, they were calling for peace among white Kentuckians. They were stamping the ideals of the Confederacy upon this public, civic space where thousands of slaves were once sold. African Americans, the Daily Press argued, were no longer welcome.

The discovery of this article shows that engaging in the process of historical research is critically important to understanding the significance of these monuments. Only by practicing the fundamentals of history — including viewing the time and place in which these statues were erected — can these memorials be understood within their proper context.

In 1887, white Lexington residents decided that Cheapside should be where the ideals of the defeated Confederacy should be honored. “Breckinridge Square” would loom large over the site’s ties to slavery.

Today, when Kentucky communities consider what to do with their monuments and memorials, it is imperative that they embrace the practices of history. By conducting research and engaging in historical thinking, 21st century Kentuckians can make the best decisions about whom and what we should honor in our public, civic spaces.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.