FAIRVIEW, Ky. — Drive down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in western Kentucky, past Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School and take a right onto Jefferson Davis Highway, and a gray spike will begin to rise in the air.
This obelisk — once described as an “immobile thrust of concrete” rising from “poverty grass” by U.S. poet laureate Robert Penn Warren — marks the birth site of the lone president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Two-thirds the size of the Washington Monument, it was completed in 1924 and was once meant to be the crown jewel of a highway through the South that would ferry auto tourists from one Confederate monument to another. Despite Kentucky having stayed in the Union, Davis’ birth site is now a 19-acre state park that includes picnic grounds, a museum dedicated to his life and an elevator that runs to the top of the 351-foot obelisk.
That museum will soon have a new exhibit. In June, as Confederate monuments were being torn down across the country in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s killing and Breonna Taylor’s, in Louisville, the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted 11-1 to immediately remove a 12-foot marble statue of Davis from the Kentucky Capitol rotunda in Frankfort and send it across the state to the museum at the Davis birth site in Fairview.
A similar debate has been underway in Congress. In July the House of Representatives voted to remove statues honoring Confederate figures, including one of Davis, from the U.S. Capitol. “It’s time to sweep away the last vestiges of Jim Crow and the dehumanizing of individuals because of the color of their skin,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, said at a news conference. But Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, is not expected to allow a vote in the Senate. He has called the push to remove the Confederate monuments in Washington an attempt to “airbrush the Capitol.”
President Donald Trump, who threatened to punish state and local governments that fail to protect them from destruction or vandalism, has defended “our beautiful” Confederate statues, proposing a grandiose statue park that will likely never be built. Caught between calls to remove statues from public view and to leave them up, officials from Florida to Indiana and from Virginia to Texas have increasingly sought to put them in existing museums they claim will give disputed monuments “context.”
But those museums often do not have the resources to change generations-old history narratives, leaving states and towns wondering if they should invest more taxpayer dollars in new museums or leave the statues as they are — and hope a lack of advertising and funding discourages people from visiting them. The effort to bring Jefferson Davis home to Fairview shows just how fraught navigating that conflict is.
Around Fairview, a city of under 200, there is no consensus about what should be done with Confederate monuments and the history they represent. For generations, students from the area were brought on field trips to the Davis birth site to have lunch at its picnic grounds and ride the elevator up the obelisk. Shaneika Brooks, 42, a former welder, was one of those schoolchildren. She only realized Davis’ commitment to maintaining slavery when she was older and has avoided it ever since. Now she and others worry that moving the Kentucky Capitol monument could reignite old tensions.
“We have enough history here with racism,” she said in an interview at a park in neighboring Hopkinsville, where she now lives. “Don’t bring it here because somebody else doesn’t want it and don’t want to deal with that problem. We don’t want the problems either.”
Brooks grew up in Todd County and was on the varsity track and field team, wearing the gray and red colors of the Todd County Central High School Rebels. When she was in high school in the ’90s, there was another period of tension over Confederate symbols. In 1995, 19-year-old Michael Westerman, who was white, was pursued and fatally shot over the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day by a group of Black teenagers. Westerman had been flying a Confederate flag from his truck; one of the teenagers claimed at trial that he yelled a racial slur at them.
Westerman was from Todd County, and Brooks went to high school with the teenagers involved. Two of them were sentenced to life in prison, and the murder was followed by a surge in Ku Klux Klan activity in the area. A memorial for Westerman was held at the Davis obelisk.
Though decades have now passed since the murder, Brooks believes little has changed in Todd County, where her daughters faced discrimination in school. Brooks says her older daughter confronted verbal harassment from teachers and students, and her younger daughter, who is biracial, was switched from honors classes to special education when the administration learned that her mother was Black. In response Brooks moved her family to Hopkinsville. (The Todd County school district superintendent, Mark Thomas, denied that such events occurred.)
Brooks sees a straight line between past and present injustices. “The superiority comes from Jefferson Davis and the monument,” she said. “To them that’s their superhero cape. As long as they have that they feel safe to behave how they behave.” Brooks acknowledges that there have been few local calls against bringing the monument from the Kentucky Capitol. “There is not a lot of Black people to cause a ruckus, so it is the perfect place to put that monument,” she said.
The obelisk was originally conceived in 1907 by the so-called Orphan Brigade — Kentuckians who volunteered to fight for the Confederacy when this border state opted to stay in the Union. They were responding to the construction of a federal birth site park in Kentucky dedicated to another famous native son, Abraham Lincoln. As the veterans died off, the United Daughters of the Confederacy took over the project in 1921 as they supported efforts across the country to downplay the role of slavery in the Confederacy and promote the “Lost Cause,” what Karen Cox, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, calls “a narrative created by white Southerners to deal with defeat by creating an alternative history.”
The statue of Davis put up in the Kentucky rotunda by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1936 was part of those efforts that focused as much on justifying Jim Crow as on remembering the past.
In the western part of the state, with funds running low, the Fairview obelisk was ultimately completed by the state of Kentucky in 1924. Before the site’s unveiling as a public park, the Ku Klux Klan was allowed to burn a large cross atop the obelisk.
In the decades that followed, the park became a popular spot for school field trips and events glorifying the Confederacy. Patrick Lewis, 34, grew up going to the park in the ’90s on Jefferson Davis Day, which marks Davis’ birthday. The event, which has not taken place for the past two years, included a Little Miss Confederacy beauty pageant on the steps of the obelisk, and reenactments of Civil War battles that the Confederacy always won. Participants would join together and sing “Happy Birthday” to Davis.
“At the time it just seemed like regional pride, like rooting for the home team,” Lewis said.
But there were moments even as a child when that pride didn’t sit well with him. One such moment came the winter after the Westerman murder, when he asked two boys in his sixth-grade class what they had gotten for Christmas and they told him their mothers had sewn them Ku Klux Klan robes. Another moment came on Jefferson Davis Day in 1994, when, during a Civil War reenactment, the Confederate Army took the Union soldiers prisoner and mock executed them one by one. “I realized for some people it was more than just rooting for the home team,” Lewis said.
His views continued to change in 2002 when he went to the same Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where Jefferson Davis attended. With a campus debate raging about a monument to Davis that was eventually moved to a remote part of the library, he began to question some of the ideas he had grown up with. “It grounded debate, just like Confederate monuments now are doing for the country,” he said.
But it was reading the founding documents of the Confederacy as a history major that ended any doubt for him about what the Confederacy stood for. “The Confederate project was to create a republic that enshrined slavery and white supremacy in its constitution,” he said.
Many had a similar moment of realization in 2017 when white nationalists rallied around a statue of Robert E. Lee slated for removal in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one participant killed a counterprotester. Since then, white Americans have increasingly recognized these monuments’ racist past.
It also marked the year Lewis returned to Fairview, after receiving a doctorate in history, as the leader of a post-Charlottesville state project to deal with the more controversial parts of the Jefferson Davis museum. He oversaw the removal of Confederate flags from the gift shop, provided new tour texts for guides and had a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, moved to the adjacent office. But the most important element was preparing new interpretive panels intended to provide context.
Most of the museum focuses on Davis’ career before the Civil War — as a veteran and U.S. senator — and his life after it. But where Lewis’ new panel would explain the history of the Davises as enslavers, there is now only a blank wall. No funds were made available to print the panels. Lewis now believes the project was only ever meant to give Matt Bevin, then the Republican governor, the appearance of action as the nation reeled from events in Charlottesville. When the statue of Davis, currently being kept at an undisclosed location for its safety, finally arrives, there will be little new context for it.
Some visitors to Fairview might wonder why Kentucky has a museum and a state House statue dedicated to Davis at all. The Confederate leader left the state when he was still a toddler and grew up in Mississippi, which he represented in the U.S. Senate as well as the House before the Civil War.
Though Kentucky originally tried to stay neutral in the war, in 1861 Unionist candidates won nine of the state’s 10 congressional seats and absolute majorities in both houses of the state Legislature. Pro-Confederate Kentuckians then created their own rival assembly, which voted for secession.
The area around Fairview was once pro-Union. But according to Lewis, it was after the war that Kentuckians rushed to embrace the Confederacy out of fear of what the postwar racial order would bring. “Kentuckians imagined themselves as the last remaining spokespeople with political power for a defeated South,” he said.
A common refrain today among supporters of Confederate monuments is that they represent history and not racism. Brenda Guise drove with her husband, Dave, from Stephenville, Texas, to see the obelisk. “We are trying to see these things before someone doesn’t let us see them anymore,” said Guise, a Navy veteran and a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy. She and her husband were driving to Utica, Kentucky, to pick up a monument of a Confederate soldier they had made to put up in their yard, convinced that only Confederate monuments on private property could be protected.
Support for Confederate figures can also come from unexpected places. Ron Sydnor, who is the former manager of the Davis birth site, is Black and remains an engaging defender of Davis in the region. “There is a dichotomy to Jefferson Davis,” he said in the office of the museum. “He was president of the Confederacy on the one hand and on the other a revered statesman of the U.S. He went to West Point and was a veteran of the Mexican American War.”
Sydnor believes bringing the statue from Frankfort will increase park visitorship. But even if more people come, it will have to continue to be supported by taxpayer dollars. A 2018 Smithsonian investigation found that in the last decade, taxpayers spent at least $40 million on statues, homes, parks, museums, libraries, cemeteries and heritage organizations associated with the Confederacy.
The Jefferson Davis birth site has a state-funded budget of $236,000 in fiscal year 2019, with an additional $363,000 allocated to repair the broken elevator up the obelisk. Park officials say that amount is too small for an overhaul of the museum — but it is already too large for critics.
“To know that to take down and move the Jefferson Davis to Fairview cost $225,000 — and the park itself has an over $200,000 annual budget — is a slap in the face,” said Zirconia Alleyne, editor-in-chief of The Kentucky New Era, who is from Hopkinsville and used to cover Jefferson Davis Day at the park. “Do I need to go visit a monument to have context for who someone was? I think we could just read about them. A statue is exalting a figure. I think that does more than tell the history.”
These questions about the role the state should play in Confederate memory have left politicians across the country struggling to determine what should be done with monuments. In Richmond, Virginia, city officials are currently collecting solicitations for the Confederate monuments removed from Monument Avenue, including one of Jefferson Davis. Proposals have been received from established institutions as well as individuals who hope to put the statues in their yards. No decisions have yet been made, but according to the Richmond City Council chief of staff, Lawrence Anderson, who is leading the process, “the intent in taking down the statues is not to build a Monument Avenue somewhere else.”
Some experts say the debate around them is more important than the monuments themselves. “A monument is just a thing. It only is important as long as people are willing to remember,” said Mabel Wilson, a professor at Columbia University who was a member of the architectural team that designed the Memorial to Enslaved African American Laborers at the University of Virginia, which opened in August. She believes engaging people in a discussion can do more to change people’s views than simply removing statues.
In an attempt to support that dialogue, on Monday the Mellon Foundation announced the $250 million Monument Project to fund the relocation and contextualization of monuments, and to build new monuments commemorating more diverse contributions. Soon more controversial monuments may be moving, but for now most of the discussions remain local.
Donavan Pinner, 22, recently returned to the area after graduating from Morehouse College. “It is my wish someone will make a resolution in the state Legislature to cut the budget for Fairview,” he said.
A preacher since he was 16, Pinner says he doesn’t believe in spending so much energy on the future of monuments. In his sermons he regularly mentions the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for his congregants to take action. “Our focus should be on removing living monuments like Mitch McConnell and people like that from office who continue to do the systematic oppressive work that enables cases like Breonna Taylor’s to be silent,” he said.
Pinner was never taken to the Jefferson Davis birth site when he was in school — according to park officials those trips all but stopped in recent decades because of slashed school budgets, rather than a changed view of Davis — yet he admits the monument is hard to forget. The towering Jefferson Davis obelisk continues to be a landmark for him in the flat Kentucky countryside.
“You can’t avoid it,” Pinner said. “Whenever I come back I know I am close to home when I see it.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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