No statues to be removed or added to Rotunda without legislative OK under advancing bill

Published 11:57 am Friday, February 16, 2024

By McKenna Horsley

Kentucky Lantern


Almost four years after the Beshear administration removed a Confederate statue from the Capitol Rotunda, the House State Government Committee forwarded a bill that would give the General Assembly final say over what may be permanently displayed there.

House Bill 513, sponsored by Rep. David Hale, R-Wellington, would give the General Assembly approval power over the permanent installation or removal of any “statue, monument or object of art” in the Rotunda. The bill sets out a process for the Historic Properties Advisory Commission to seek the legislature’s OK and makes the commission members personally responsible for the costs of any removal or installations in violation of the bill’s provisions.

The most recent statue to be removed from the Rotunda was of Jefferson Davis — born a Kentuckian and the only president of the Confederate States of America — in 2020 after a vote of the Historic Properties Advisory Commission. Since, there’s been an empty corner in the Rotunda.

In a party line vote, 15 Republicans on the committee gave approval to the bill while four Democrats voted against it.

Hale, the chairman of the House committee, repeatedly told members that the removal of the Davis statue had nothing to do with his bill. After the meeting, Hale also told reporters that his legislation would not pave the way for the Davis statue to return to the Rotunda.

“This bill today is not pertaining to anything that was done in the past as far as a removal of a specific statute,” Hale said. “This has nothing to do with that. That’s happened and that’s far behind us.”

Hale said he has heard concerns from constituents that groups are advocating for removal of two of the remaining statues, but declined to say which ones. He argued that the legislative body, which represents Kentuckians, should be able to make decisions on what is displayed permanently in the Rotunda, an area at the center of the Capitol in front of the governor’s office that is often highlighted on Capitol tours and the site of many gatherings and ceremonies.

However, Democrats on the committee saw a connection between Hale’s bill and the Davis statue. Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said the Davis statue was “taken out for a reason,” that being that he led the Confederacy and the “insurrection taking place when the Civil War started.”

“We can’t erase history, but what we can do is to make sure that those who have been loyal to the United States of America that we honor them, and those who have not been particularly supportive of our country at the entire time that they lived, those individuals should not be honored,” Graham said.

Davis was born in Christian County. Later in life, he became the president of the Confederacy and was a known racist. He was charged with treason against the United States, but his 1869 trial was ultimately canceled. Kentucky continues to recognize a state holiday dedicated to him, along with two other Confederate holidays — Robert E. Lee Day and Confederate Memorial Day.

Months into his first term, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear called on the commission to approve removing the statue of Davis. On the day it was taken down, Beshear called it “a step forward for the betterment of every single Kentuckian.”

Before 2020, the statue of Davis was feet away from the statue of President Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. president during the Civil War. Lincoln is still prominently in the middle of the Capitol Rotunda. Lincoln was also born in Kentucky in LaRue County.

The other statues in the Rotunda are Kentucky statesman Henry Clay, Vice President Alben Barkley and pioneer surgeon Dr. Ephraim McDowell.

Under Hale’s bill, the Historic Properties Advisory Commission, which is made up of the governor’s appointees, would still oversee historic properties such as the Executive Mansion, the Vest Lindsey House and the Old Governor’s Mansion and displays in other areas of the Capitol. The commission would be required to refer detailed proposals for permanent displays to the Legislative Research Commission.

Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, said she did not view the bill as undermining the commission’s authority but bringing Kentuckians into the process.

“If anything, I think that bringing the people’s branch of government into having input in this decision-making process, to provide that approval, is a good thing because we want this particular space to reflect our heritage here in the commonwealth,” she said. “We want it to reflect our history, and we want the people’s branch of government to have input in that.”


A statue of President Abraham Lincoln stands in the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda. (Photo by McKenna Horsley/Kentucky Lantern)