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As Jefferson Davis Site in Todd County Prepares to Receive Statue, Not Everyone Supports Relocation

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Rhonda J. Miller
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As protests against racism continue in cities around the globe, a statue of Jefferson Davis has been removed from the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol.

By a vote of 11-to-1, the state Historic Properties Advisory Commission concluded last month that the statue would be most appropriately relocated to the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview, Ky.

The historic site is 200 miles southwest of the state capitol, in rural Todd County, where the president of the Confederacy was born.

But some civil rights advocates are concerned that locating the statue at the historic site won’t add to a fair representation of Kentucky’s past - or present. 

Driving along U.S. Route 68, 20 miles west of Russellville, an obelisk that looks like a smaller Washington Monument suddenly pierces the sky above the open fields and green trees.  

Five miles down the road, visitors enter the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site along a driveway shaded by a canopy of trees, ending at the monument that’s 351-feet tall.

Manager of the historic site, David Smith, said 85 percent of visitors stop by out of curiosity. The other 15 percent are mostly people whose relatives fought in the Civil War.

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Credit Rhonda J. Miller
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The Jefferson Davis State Historic Site is located on 19 acres in rural Todd County, Kentucky.

“And I’ve had ‘em come in and said, ‘Well, my great-uncle fought for the Confederacy and my other great- uncle fought for the Union’,” said Smith.

He said visitors are offered ‘just the facts’ about Jefferson Davis.   

“We don’t take sides here. We just tell history," said Smith. "I don’t become involved in ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘I don’t like that.’ I just tell the story of his life.”

The site with the monument and small museum attracts about 15,000 people a year.

Smith said even if visitors don’t bring up the topic of slavery, they hear about it. 

“We intentionally bring it up," said Smith. "We feel like, well we’ve got to, to tell the whole story.”

The 19-acre site is a popular place for picnics and Smith said it's also used by many community groups. 

“We have African-American reunions here. I had one here last summer of a hundred people," he said. "We have African-American churches that do vacation Bible study school.”

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Credit Rhonda J. Miller
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David Smith is manager of the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site.

Inside the small museum that documents the life of the president of the Confederacy, a video tells the history of the 351-foot tall monument, including the dedication in 1924, and the many decades that have followed.  

The video's narrator tells visitors, “The Jefferson Davis Monument was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973."

The Jefferson Davis statue that was removed from the state capitol, where it had stood since 1936, is to be relocated to this Todd County site.

Gov. Andy Beshear requested that the state Historic Properties Advisory Commission approve the removal of the statue of the Confederate president from the Capitol Rotunda. The commisson approved that request at specially called meeting on June 12. 

Upon the vote to remove the statue, Gov. Beshear said in a video announcement that it means, "...every child who walks into this Capitol feels welcome, and none of them have to look at a symbol and a statue that stands for the enslavement of their ancestors."

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Credit Jules Miller
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A museum at the state historic site documents the life of Jefferson Davis

Beshear said the decision to remove the statue from the Capitol is  "...a move toward showing that everybody is welcome in this building and that our government should work for the betterment of every single Kentuckian - that we have systematic issues that we must address, but now is the time to truly move forward and show that Team Kentucky includes every single Kentuckian."

The statue was removed from the capitol rotunda on June 13. While the advisory commmission voted to move the statue to the historic site, some Kentuckians are not in favor of that decision. 

Civil rights activist Charles Neblett and his wife Marvinia have lived Russellville, not far from the historic site, for 46 years.

Neblett was a founding member of the https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duvoETGVvYU" target="_blank">Freedom Singers in 1962 and continues to sing at rallies for equality and justice. 

He said he’s been to the monument site in Todd County and does not see any positive reason to add the statue.

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Credit Jules Miller
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The interior of the museum at the historic site has photos and documents that tell about the life of Jefferson Davis.

“What it’s going to do is enhance that area, you know, and the Klan, and people are going to rally around that. So, I don’t know what good it’s going to serve, because you’ve got Klan still here in Kentucky," said Neblett.

"You've got conservatives, you've got the Klan, you’ve got all kinds of groups with guns and stuff. I don’t know what it’s going to help, putting that Jefferson Davis out there."

Neblett thinks it would be acceptable for the statue to go to a larger museum, where people come to study a broader vision of history, not a small museum dedicated solely to the Confederate president. 

“Yes, in the museums they could have it, somebody come and visit for educational purposes," he said. "But that thing is set up there to rally around the South.”

State Representative Attica Scott is a Democrat whose district covers part of Louisville. She hasn’t been to the historic site in Todd County and said she doesn’t understand why people would want to visit a memorial that she sees as a testament to racism in Kentucky and the nation.

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Credit Flickr/Creative Commons/Stephen Conn
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The statue of Jefferson Davis that was in the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda has been removed.

“Quite honestly, I would be fine if no one ever saw the statue again and instead really focused on how do we build authentic relationships with one another across our differences," said Scott. "How do we build community and how do we move Kentucky forward?”  

The cost of removing the Jefferson Davis statue from the rotunda in Frankfort and relocating it to the historic site in Todd County is $225,000.

The no-bid contract with American Industrial Contractors was recorded by the state Finance and Administration Cabinet on June 12.

The contract calls for the Lexington company to “...disassemble, transport, store, secure, deliver, and reassemble..." the statue at the Todd County location.

That’s in addition to the fiscal year 2019 budget of $236,000 for the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site. 

The 15-foot tall marble statue is currently in temporary storage while plans are being finalized to move it to the historic site in Fairview. No date has been set for the move. 

Rhonda Miller joined WKU Public Radio in 2015. She has worked as Gulf Coast reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, where she won Associated Press, Edward R. Murrow and Green Eyeshade awards for stories on dead sea turtles, health and legal issues arising from the 2010 BP oil spill and homeless veterans.
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