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Plaque Declaring Jefferson Davis a 'Hero' to be Removed

Ryland Barton

A plaque proclaiming Jefferson Davis as a hero and a patriot will be removed from Kentucky's Capitol, the latest effort to alter Confederate monuments across the country following outbreaks of racially motivated violence.

The Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted to remove the plaque, which is attached to a 15-foot-tall (5-meter-tall) marble statue of Davis in the rotunda of the state Capitol. The plaque declares Davis is a "patriot, hero, statesman" and lists his accomplishments in both the United States and Confederate governments. Last month, a committee recommended the state remove the plaque because of its "subjective" language.

"There are people who don't think he was heroic. And so we just decided to remove it to eliminate that subjective word," commission chairman Steve Collins said.

Leslie Nigels, director of the Division of Historic Properties, said the plaque would be removed in a few days.

The decision angered both supporters of the statue and those who want it removed because it honors someone who led the fight to preserve slavery. The statue was erected in 1936 with the help of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and $5,000 in taxpayer money approved by the state Legislature. Tuesday, a past president of the Kentucky division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy vowed to file a lawsuit to keep the plaque in place.

"It's wrong. It's the censoring of history," said Susan McCrobie, who was president of the Kentucky division until 2016 and is now the group's historian. "If that plaque comes off that statue, we are damaged because that statue was erected under our name and our patronage."

Efforts to remove the statue gained momentum following the racially motivated murders of nine people at a South Carolina church in 2015, a tragedy that prompted the removal of Confederate monuments in several states. Later that year, the commission decided to keep the statue but promised to provide it with more historical context, especially for the hundreds of school children who visit the Capitol each year.

That effort was stalled until this summer, when violent protests at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, renewed interest in reviewing Confederate monuments across the country. Kentucky NAACP President Raoul Cunningham said removing the plaque was an attempt to "whitewash the issue."

"Removing the plaque doesn't do a damn thing," he said. "It, again, is an attempt to do nothing."

Davis is one of five native Kentuckians honored with statues in the state Capitol. His likeness stands behind a statue of Abraham Lincoln, who led the country through the Civil War. Kentucky did not secede from the Union during the Civil War, but it was filled with Confederate sympathizers who attempted to establish a shadow government in the western part of the state.

Like many states, Kentucky is filled with Confederate monuments. Leaders in the state's two largest cities have removed three monuments already. But the fight over the Jefferson Davis statue is more complex given its prominent position in the state Capitol.

The Davis statue was erected at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the height of the Jim Crow era, where segregation laws proliferated throughout the South. The original plan was to have the Lincoln statue facing north while the Davis statue faced south directly behind it. The plan was abandoned because the floor of the Capitol could not hold the weight of both statues so close together, according to Andrew Patrick, community engagement coordinator for the Kentucky Historical Society.

"They were very self-consciously erecting this statue as a balance against Lincoln," Patrick said.

McCrobie said the statue is not a monument to segregation, but was a memorial at the time for all of the state's Confederate veterans and their relatives.

"We still had people living in Kentucky whose fathers fought for the Confederacy, whose husbands fought for the Confederacy," she said. "It brought those people together. They were honoring a leader."

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