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Cities around the country are grappling with whether to keep or take down monuments. In Louisville, Kentucky, a monument honoring confederate soldiers has been the source of controversy for years, even after its removal. Forty miles to the southwest, in the town of Brandenburg, the statue was taken with open arms. Jeffrey Brown reports on Kentucky’s understanding of its past and present.
After the violence in Charlottesville this summer, cities around the country are grappling with history and whether to keep or take down monuments.
Last week, the Dallas City Council voted to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee. Just yesterday, protesters covered a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. And, in New York City, a statue of Christopher Columbus was vandalized in Central Park.
Jeffrey Brown recently traveled to Kentucky, a slave state that never joined the Confederacy during the Civil War, but one where the echoes of a divided history continue to be heard.
Louisville, Kentucky, to the Kentucky Derby, the Slugger baseball bat, the great Muhammad Ali and, for 121 years, until last winter, this 70-foot-tall monument honoring Confederate soldiers.
University of Louisville Professor Ricky Jones walked past it for 20 years.
RICKY JONES, University of Louisville: I knew what it was, what it represented. And so when you understand that a symbol like that is something that represents an era of slavery and dehumanization in the country's history, it's demeaning, dehumanizing to walk by it every day if you're an African-American.
Today, the statue stands some 40 miles to the southwest in the town of Brandenburg, population 2,600, on the banks of the Ohio River.
And Mayor Ronnie Joyner is thrilled to have it.
MAYOR RONNIE JOYNER, Brandenburg, Kentucky:
To me, there's no controversy. To me, it's a Civil War monument that we have now, and we're proud of it. You can look at it and see that it's something that this city can be proud of.
The story of the monument that once stood on this empty traffic median in many ways encapsulates the passions over history and race that are now being fought over in the country.
It was given to city of Louisville in 1895 by the Kentucky Women's Confederate Monument Association. Once on the outskirts of town, it was gradually encircled by the expanding University of Louisville campus. There were earlier protests against it. In 1947, then-Mayor Charles Farnsley responded with a rifle, protecting the statue.
Then, two years ago, following the killing of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof, Professor Jones, head of Pan-African Studies Department here, started a new effort to remove the statue.
When you really look at the history of these statues, you look at the history of the flag, you look at the history of the Confederacy, which was a treasonous region of the country, you understand that it was steeped in racism, it was steeped in brutality, it was steeped in the idea that one race of people had the right to own, to enslave, to brutalize another.
Then you can still support the statues, you can still support the flag, you can still support memorials, but you have got to be very clear and honest about what you're supporting.
The city joined the effort, helping overcome resistance, including a lawsuit by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Mayor Greg Fischer says it's part of an ongoing rethinking of the city's past and present, which includes the creation of Freedom Park, not far from the Confederate monument.
So, this is explicitly a kind of balance to the statue?
MAYOR GREG FISCHER, Louisville, Kentucky:
An attempt at that, yes. So this went up in 2012 by the University of Louisville to say, look, we know not the whole story is being told here with this statue, so let's commemorate some of our powerful figures in terms of African-American leaders in our city here.
The statue, says the mayor, had no place in modern Louisville.
MAYOR GREG FISCHER:
We're a compassionate city, but there were still some charged emotions. Some people, of course, accused me of erasing history. Some people said, Mayor, you're the Taliban. You're destroying history. I said, no, we're not destroying it. We're just moving it, but…
You're moving history?
History is always dynamic. It can always be interpreted in different ways.
When this statue was put here over 100 years ago, it was on the edge of the city. Six months ago, it was in the middle of the city. Very different context. Also, our consciousness as a community, as a country has changed as well. Clearly, a statue like that was the white order's way of saying, we are still in charge.
And what I ask people, would you be OK if somebody came into your house and took your wife away from you, never to be seen again, brutalize her, rape her on the way down the river, separate your family, and then we put up a statue to those people?
But when Louisville decided to take down the monument, Brandenburg welcomed it with fanfare at a ceremony attended by some 400 people.
The monument is seen here as part of a history walk along the riverfront park, with much smaller statues commemorating Native Americans and the Underground Railroad. And the town has added plaques that purport to tell Civil War history from both a Southern and Northern perspective.
Now, says Mayor Joyner, who, with Judge Gerry Lynn, led the effort to bring it here, it's a Civil War, not a Confederate monument.
MAYOR RONNIE JOYNER:
It's veterans. It's — I would compare this pretty much to the Vietnam Wall, because this monument, it honors veterans. It wasn't put up to say, hah, hah, hah, we did this, because the South actually lost the war.
You don't see it as a symbol of slavery?
No, absolutely not. It's in honor of veterans. It's not — it was never put up to — because of slavery or because of black vs. white.
But there is a controversy in this country over what some people see as symbols of a Civil War history and of a racial history and a history of slavery and of oppression in this country.
I — yes, I guess there is. But I don't see it that way. And the majority of the people here don't see it that way.
And, the mayor says, the monument is not going anywhere.
The thing in Charlottesville, it made news, and so everybody wants to know, what am I going to do? Well, I'm going to do not anything. I'm going to try to preserve what we have and take care of business.
It was a sentiment we heard from others in Brandenburg, including Jeremiah Caddell, a groundskeeper at a nearby golf course.
JEREMIAH CADDELL, Brandenburg Resident:
Because it represents our history. Everybody's wanting to throw it away, throw it away, sweep it underneath the rug. Nobody wants to hear about it. And then Brandenburg stepped up and said, hey, we will take it.
When you say "our history," who's "us"?
Us is African-Americans, white, Caucasian people. It's Asian Americans. There's wars fought in — overseas.
What's next? In Brandenburg, Mayor Joyner told me he'd like more monuments, but isn't sure that's possible after the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, while, in Louisville, the city is holding hearings to decide if other statues should come down.
I'm here to honor John B. Castleman.
The most contentious is John Castleman, a Confederate officer who, after the war, joined the U.S. Army and helped build Louisville's park system. The question now, which aspect of Castleman's life should this city recognize?
Last month, the statue was vandalized, splattered in bright orange paint. But when we visited recently, there was another message nearby: "Save me."
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Louisville and Brandenburg, Kentucky.
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