The scaffolding has recently been taken down from the courthouse in downtown Nicholasville as the Jessamine County structure’s significant renovation nears completion.
Part of the renovation included a complete restoration of the Lady of Justice statues which again stand atop the courthouse holding in her hand the scales of justice.
But the courthouse renovation should be viewed as incomplete. There remains one more item that requires completion: removal of the Confederate Monument.
Jessamine’s Confederate Monument
The Confederate Monument standing on the courthouse lawn in downtown Nicholasville is significant and imposing. The seven-foot tall soldier stands upon an even taller 11-foot base. It is, by far, the largest monument at the historic courthouse.
The courthouse lawn, like the capitol in Frankfort, is a place where we honor and glorify. These are places where laws are written and enforced. Because we, as a nation, believe in equal justice under the law it is not right for our symbols in this important spaces to honor and glorify bias or prejudice.
So what does the Jessamine Confederate Monument honor and glorify?
Its base contains various inscriptions which memorialize that ‘Lost Cause’ telling of history. Among the most offensive is this one: “Nor braver bled for brighter land nor brighter land had a cause so grand.” The words do nothing but glorify the South and the systemic racism with which our nation still struggles.
It does not belong on the lawn of a county’s seat of justice. It does not belong on the lawn of my county’s seat of justice.
Most curiously, the statue was originally that of a Union soldier to be located in an Ohio town. That town, however, could not raise the necessary funds. The Jessamine County association purchased the statue from the stone company for $1,500 and the belt buckle was modified from ‘USA’ to ‘CSA’.
As the largest monument at the courthouse, the glorification of the Confederacy (which fought against the United States) diminishes others who are honored for their service in the Revolutionary War. Other conflicts in which Jessamine Countians fought for the United States are not recognized by monuments on the lawn. Yet, those who fought against the United States receive oversized glory.
A Lynching at the Monument
The Confederacy stood to retain an economic system that enslaved Black Americans. Jim Crow kept a knee upon the necks of freed African-Americans after Reconstruction hurriedly ended with the Compromise of 1877. The Ku Klux Klan intimidated. Justice was denied and unequally applied. It is a stained history that America has not overcome.
One of the worst symbols of this systemic mistreatment exists at the end of a rope thrown over the branch of a tree. Six years after the Confederate Monument was dedicated on the courthouse lawn and only feet away from that monument, a lynching occurred. The date was February 6, 1902. A 19-year-old black man, accused of assaulting a white woman, was seized by a mob of some 200 people from the local jail. On the courthouse lawn in the shadow of the Confederate Monument, the mob lynched Thomas Brown in Nicholasville, Kentucky.
Relocation or Removal
When the monument was dedicated in 1896, it was done to memorialize the Confederate soldiers who had been disinterred from Camp Nelson and reburied at Maple Grove Cemetery just down Main Street in Nicholasville. It would seem altogether fitting for the statue to be relocated there to the cemetery.
Such a move would follow what happened in Lexington with the relocation of the John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan statues from the courthouse lawn to the Lexington Cemetery. As a result, the monument could still tell a history (hopefully one that has been appropriately contextualized), but in a place that does not cause the monument to function as a state-sanctioned glorification of the Confederacy.
The courthouse is a county-owned property and governed by the county’s fiscal court. Maple Grove Cemetery is city-owned. Both would need to consent to the relocation of the statue. And, of course, funding (or donated services) would need to be secured to remove and relocate the statue.
The monument is, however, protected by state law. The Kentucky Military Heritage Commission serves as the gatekeeper against any listed site being “damaged or destroyed, removed or significantly altered” without the Commission’s written consent. Removal of the statue, or relocation to Maple Grove Cemetery, would require approval from the Military Heritage Commission.
My own arc toward justice
First, I must make my own confession. In 2014, I wrote columns for The Jessamine Journal. In one, I recognized the statue without appropriate context. I didn’t fully consider the impact the statue might have on black defendant seeking their own justice. Or of the inherent discrimination standing in front of the very source of our county’s judicial system. The presence of the Confederate Monument on the ground contradicts the existence of Lady Justice on the roof. I should have, but did not, write the column you are now reading in 2015. Then, however, I called for the removal of the statues in front of the Fayette County Courthouse. I should have written a different column in 2014 and I should have written another in 2015; I regret having waited another five years to write this one. But today, I write that the Confederate Monument on Jessamine County’s courthouse lawn needs to be removed.
The article I wrote in 2014 quoted Col. Bennett H. Young. Young wrote the definitive history on Jessamine County in 1898 and was present at the 1896 dedication of the statue. He was a Confederate veteran who found the statue the “handsomest” in the county. Young was leading an effort to tell the story of the Confederacy, and all it stood for, through the innocent sounding ‘Lost Cause’ mantra.
Colonel Young had his own agenda, however. Though he wrote a definitive history for the county, his own past identified him as one who fought against the United States during the Civil War. By glorifying a ‘Lost Cause,’ he was part of the effort to rewrite history. It is now time to make sure that our history is properly told.
Today’s Jessamine County
Last Saturday, a Black Lives Matter protest rally was held in front of the courthouse on Main Street in Nicholasville. This coming Saturday, similar events are being planned in both Nicholasville and Wilmore.
Across the Commonwealth, similar protest rallies are occurring in surprising places. The national and international rage over the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others is being felt here in Jessamine County. There is a sense of urgency to do what is right. In Jessamine County, one step toward righting centuries of wrong is to no longer glorify systemic racism in the heart of our city in front of the courthouse. The Jessamine Confederate Monument must be removed.
There will be opposition, some of it angry opposition, to the statue’s removal. The newly restored statue of Lady Justice must be the symbol of what we pursue in Jessamine County: that simple creed upon which our nation was founded “that all … are created equal.” Some opponents will say that history is being whitewashed by the statue’s removal; to the contrary, the ‘Lost Cause’ sought to revise history a century ago. The statue must be removed from the courthouse lawn because what it represents is not justice.