Is Danville ‘Historically Bold’ — or historically squeamish?

Published 9:02 am Tuesday, March 6, 2018


Guest columnist

Historically Bold is Danville’s catchy marketing brand. It’s bold, historic, and gives us a sharp, memorable identity. In this City of Firsts, it clearly refers to the Constitutional Convention on Constitution Square that led to Kentucky statehood in 1792. But what else? More important, how should the phrase affect the way we think and act today? The 25 or so Danvillians who gathered for the recent Punch session at JB’s Market & Bar gingerly tossed this warm potato back and forth over cool punch.   

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Punch sessions are occasional, casual, congenial, unscripted, early-evening gatherings where everyone is welcomed — though people who might have some special interest in a topic may get an email alert. Past subjects have ranged from the hilarious “Famous Danvillians I Have Known” to the more serious “Ideas for a Future Better Danville.” The name of these informal  gatherings, “Punch,” has nothing to do with verbal or physical punches, only the different punches that JB’s-owner Mary Robin Spoonamore concocts for each session.

This recent “Historically Bold” Punch session began with five local experts summarizing what they think Danville’s brand implies for us today. Barbara Hulette of Boyle Landmark Trust, began: “Historic structures give our town and neighborhoods their identities. When you tear down an architecturally important historic building, it’s gone forever. You’ve taken away part of who we are. It’s certainly not bold to destroy our past in this way.”

Michael Hughes, who at Hulette’s urging founded the Soul of Second Street celebration four years ago, talked about the importance that personal stories play in bringing Danville’s history to life and creating an understanding. He recounted how uninterested a group of young schoolchildren were when he was taking them on a tour of Second Street, once the center of Danville’s African-American community. There were no buildings left for them to look at, but once he began telling them stories about his experiences there when he was a boy, the children suddenly began to listen. His personal stories gave shape to a whole neighborhood in their minds.   

“Older African-Americans are dying,” Hughes said.  “It’s important to save what we can while they’re still alive.” Others in the group agreed with the pressing need to share and record Danville’s African-American oral history and photographs to “give a soul” to that important aspect of our history.    

One surprising fact that came to light during the gathering was that an

African-American Presbyterian church once existed  on the site where a statue of a Confederate soldier now stands in the park next to the Presbyterian Church on Main Street, founded by David Rice in 1784.  

Someone wondered whether that statue should be contextualized with signage, as a committee has recommended for the Jefferson Davis statue in the Rotunda of the State Capitol, or even be moved to the Confederate area in the northwest corner of Bellevue Cemetery, the strongly preferred location of some Confederate sympathizers in 1910 when the statue was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Does being “historically bold” imply that we should also erect a downtown statue to a Civil War Union soldier from this divided area, representing the side that won the war and kept our nation intact?

In general terms, does “Historically Bold” suggest that we should give some public recognition to the least attractive parts of our past, as Germany has done with its Nazi past and South Africa has done with its apartheid past? Along with the impressive ‘City of First” stars embedded in the Weisiger Park concrete, should we should in some appropriate way acknowledge that before the Civil War, slaves were bought and sold in that same space? Does not doing that make us historically squeamish?

Stuart Sanders, the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate, talked about the growing potential for tourism in Boyle County. In 2017, $89 million was spent here, up 7 percent from the year before. Sanders said we should think of Constitution Square not as a shrine to the past, but a forum for the future where important discussions take place — as it was in earlier years.  

Sanders talked about the great potential for better “using” our past by linking it to important current issues, as Shaker Village is doing by highlighting the Shakers’ sustainability and creativity. Can we relate the fact that Kentucky’s first hemp crop was grown here to current issues about the use of medical marijuana and industrial hemp? Ephraim McDowell’s pioneering abdominal surgery to current heath care issues? The Perryville Battlefield to issues surrounding 21st-century wars?   

Punch sessions never provide final answers to anything. Rather, at a time when some spend hours in isolation staring at a small screen or tweeting with 120 characters, they are a casual incubator where ideas can be “punched up” in a friendly, congenial atmosphere — a kind of happy hour for ideas and conviviality.