It took Kentucky 111 years to abolish slavery … and we still haven’t dealt with the statues Skip to content

It took Kentucky 111 years to abolish slavery … and we still haven’t dealt with the statues

7 min read

(Publisher’s Note: Pam Gersh wrote this for us over two years ago, on February 1, 2018, at a time when there was discussion about the Jefferson Davis statue in the Capitol Rotunda. With the events of the recent past, and with the Davis statue again in the news, we thought this need to be posted again, as it is still relevant and a good word. Please share if you agree.)

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin was for the removal of Confederate statues before he was against it. While campaigning, he said “It is important to never forget our history, but parts of our history are more appropriately displayed in museums, not on government property.” After he became governor, he changed his tune, saying “I think it is a very dangerous precedent to pretend that your history is not your history. That doesn’t mean you have to embrace it. It doesn’t mean you agree with it or even like it. But to pretend it does not exist, to remove it from the landscape of discussion and the ability to learn from (it) is a very dangerous proposition.”

There is a lot of irony in Governor Bevin’s belief that the “sanitization of history,” as he likes to call it, makes us pretend that our history is not our history. The sanitization he mentions started with the very Confederate statues that are now the subject of so much controversy. They are certainly symbols: they are symbols of an insurrection to overthrow our government, led by men who were traitors, and they are symbols of 200-plus years of hate, racism, murder, segregation, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory laws that made it nearly impossible for black Americans to live the “American dream.”

The 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, was ratified by the required three-fourths of the states in 1865. But, Kentucky was not one of those states. In fact, it was not until 1976 that the Kentucky legislature ratified the 13th Amendment. That’s right: Kentucky did not officially agree to outlaw slavery until 111 years after the 13th Amendment prohibiting involuntary servitude became the law of the land.

A History of Racism in Kentucky

In 1830, thirty years before the Civil War began, slaves made up around 24 percent of the population in Kentucky. Approximately 28 percent of white families owned five or fewer slaves. In 1860, Kentucky had 225,000 slaves living in the corridor between Louisville and Lexington, and primarily working on hemp and tobacco farms. At the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln had hoped to encourage border states like Kentucky to end slavery voluntarily. He tried several times to get Kentucky to adopt a plan of compensated emancipation: if an owner gave up a slave, he would get $400 from the federal government for each slave freed.

Brutus Clay, U.S. Representative

When this didn’t work, Lincoln declared slaves free only in those areas controlled by the Confederacy in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. And although most Kentuckians served in the Union, they revolted in protest, believing that a state had the right to deal with slavery as a matter of state’s rights. Ironically, Brutus Clay, a U.S. representative from Bourbon County, and anti-abolitionist (unlike his brother, Cassius Marcellus Clay), made an impassioned speech against the Emancipation Proclamation stating, “If you take away from a man that which he considers to be justly his own, you make him desperate, and he will retaliate against you. You can never by oppression make a man obey willingly the laws of his country. Act justly toward him, let him see he has a government which will protect him and he will love that government. But oppress him and rob him, and he will despise and hate you.” Again, ironically, he was talking about “a man’s” right to own slaves. It didn’t occur to him that this is exactly how slaves felt toward their own country for enslaving them, and the very reason for the Civil War.

Brutus Clay didn’t vote for the ratification of the 13th Amendment when it passed the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1865. The next month, the Kentucky legislature voted to reject it by a 56-18 vote in the State House and a 23-10 vote in the State Senate.

After the Civil War, things didn’t improve much for freed slaves in Kentucky. A visitor traveling through the South commented that Louisville was “the only place on the trip where (former) slaves waited on him.” This was also the period when the first wave of the Ku Klux Klan rose to power along with state militias and paramilitary groups. They were formed to vandalize and destroy property, and to intimidate and physically attack and assassinate black citizens. Lynchings were the preferred way to kill black men and women.

1943 colored waiting room sign (photo by Esther Bubley [public domain] via <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a>)
1943 colored waiting room sign (photo by Esther Bubley [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)
During Reconstruction and up until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, black citizens were also disenfranchised and not allowed to vote through a series of laws that required them to pass literacy tests, pay poll taxes, or own property. There was also the “grandfather clause.” This law prevented you from voting if your grandfather hadn’t voted, meaning black citizens couldn’t vote but illiterate whites could. Remember, women didn’t win the vote until 1920, so these laws only applied to black men. As a result, by the early 1900’s, black citizens were virtually eliminated from voting, even though most Southern states had majority black populations. Ten of the eleven Southern states also rewrote their state constitutions to make sure these voting laws were enforceable.

The Supreme Court of the United States upheld these laws in court case after court case. And because black Southerners were not listed on local voter rolls, they were automatically excluded from serving in local courts. Juries in the South were all white.

As a result, by the turn of the century, less than one percent of black citizens in the Deep South were registered to vote. For instance, in North Carolina, even though there were 630,207 black citizens in the state, not one of them (zero) could vote in that year’s elections. The same thing happened in Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

The Statues Appear

From the early 1900’s to the 1960’s, thousands of cheaply made Confederate statues were erected all over the country, most financed privately by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and placed on public lands. The statues were put up long after the Civil War, mostly during the Jim Crow era, when violence against black Americans was at an all-time high. This was also the period that the second wave of the KKK came to power, and segregation of schools, housing, and every other area of black lives was sanctioned by the government. So while black Americans were legally not slaves, they were held captive to oppressive laws that led to their being hanged, beaten, and treated as second-class citizens. The statues were meant to serve as a place marker for them, to let them not forget that they were still inferior to the white man.

Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky Capitol rotunda (photo by Daderot [CC0] via <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a>)
Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky Capitol rotunda (photo by Daderot [CC0] via Wikimedia Commons)
Today, front and center in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, stands a 15-foot marble statue of Jefferson Davis, a man who was a member of the U.S. House and Senate, before he left to become president of the Confederacy. The calls for removal of the statue were answered by only a proposed change to the plaque on his statute, to take away the section that reads “PATRIOT – HERO – STATESMAN.” As of today, no change has been made because of “legal” issues.

The statute of Davis shares space with statues of three other Kentuckians: President Abraham Lincoln; Henry Clay, the longest-serving speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 19th century, and once Secretary of State; and Alben Barkley, without argument Kentucky’s greatest statesman to date, having served as a U.S. Representative, a Senator, and Vice President of the United States. Jefferson Davis does not belong in the company of these men.

Learning from Our History

Matt Bevin is right: we must learn from our history. We must learn that these statues not only commemorate an insurrection lead by American citizens against their own government, but that they also symbolize 200 years of systemic racism and oppression against black Americans. This history remains with us, as America continues to struggle with deep racism. Today, 153 years after the end of the Civil War, we have a president who aligns himself with white supremacy groups, and black men are imprisoned at higher rates than any other race in a privatized federal prison system that is incentivized to arrest as many people as possible. In a recent study in Boston, it was found that the average net worth of a black family was $8, while the average worth of a white family there of $250,000.

This is not an accident. This is the long-term consequence of what these statues stand for: the destructive force of systemic racism.

There is no honor in the repression of other human beings in any form, and it should never be recognized or celebrated. The men who fought against their own country to enslave their fellow citizens shouldn’t be held up as heroes in the public square … or in the state capitol building.


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Forward Kentucky

The editorial board of Forward Kentucky. Articles under this author name have been written, edited, and approved by a number of the contributors on this site, as well as the publisher.

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