FRANKFORT, Ky. — A plaque describing the president of the Confederacy as a patriot and a hero could be removed from the Kentucky Capitol in an effort to give more historical context to the state’s monuments.
The plaque is attached to a 15-foot (5-meter) tall marble statue of Jefferson Davis, one of five statues honoring famous Kentuckians in the Capitol rotunda. It sits behind a similar statue of former President Abraham Lincoln, who led the U.S. through the Civil War.
Black leaders and others have asked state officials for years to remove the Davis statue, saying they object to honoring a man who led states that broke away from the country and enslaved millions of people. Their requests gained momentum after the racially motivated killings of nine people at a South Carolina church in 2015 and recent violent protests at a white supremacist rally in Virginia.
The Historic Properties Advisory Commission, which governs the statue, decided to keep it in place. But it promised to provide more historical context for the thousands of school children who tour the Capitol every year.
The commission appointed a committee to make recommendations. The committee met Thursday for the first time and voted unanimously to recommend removing the plaque that declares Davis was a “patriot, hero, statesman” while also listing his credentials as a U.S. congressman, senator and secretary of war.
“It does read as a subjective statement rather than a factual statement,” committee chairman Craig Potts said.
The committee recommended keeping a smaller plaque that has Davis’ name, his place of birth and title as the “only president of the Confederacy.”
The full commission was scheduled to vote on that recommendation Thursday afternoon, but couldn’t for lack of a quorum. Eight of the commission’s 15 members skipped the meeting. Commission chairman Stephen Collins said it was a surprise, noting only one commissioner had called ahead to say he or she couldn’t attend. Collins scheduled a special meeting for Oct. 24 to vote on the recommendation.
The committee that made the recommendation has two black members, including Ron Sydnor. For seven years, Sydnor was the park manager of the Jefferson Davis Historic Site in Fairview, where visitors were often surprised to find a black man giving tours at a monument honoring someone who fought to preserve slavery.
Sydnor argued the Civil War was not fought “solely about slavery,” saying the conflict was mostly about the economy. He said Davis was a hero and a patriot, at least until 1861 when he became president of the Confederacy. Before that, Sydnor noted Davis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate and called him “arguably the best secretary of war this country ever had.”
Still, Sydnor said he voted to remove the plaque because it could cause people to think the state was glorifying Davis’ time as president of the Confederacy.
“The things that he did left a great impact on this country,” Sydnor said. “I think he earned his place.”
Kent Whitworth, executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society, responded by saying the articles of secession adopted by most Southern states made it clear the war was primarily fought over slavery. He said that was one of the “infinite teachable moments” available to Capitol visitors.
Kentucky never joined the Confederacy during the Civil War. But the state had plenty of Confederate sympathizers. In the early 20th century, officials erected monuments to Confederate soldiers throughout the state. City officials in Louisville have removed one such monument already, while leaders in Lexington have sought permission to remove two Confederate statues.