Louisville finally, after a year of discussion, has a policy for determining what values we want city public art and monuments to embody.
Finally, Mayor Greg Fischer has the bureaucratic process and political cover to remove the John B. Castleman statue from Cherokee Triangle… before the November election.
The Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee recently released a draft of proposed guidelines to determine “whether to alter, to preserve or to remove public art and monuments that may be interpreted as honoring bigotry, racism and/or slavery.”
The final report is due to be delivered to the mayor by June 30. If it contains the same criteria as the draft, then the Castleman statue needs to be removed, just as was the Confederate monument at UofL.
The debate over statues like Castleman and all other potentially offensive public art is part of a national discussion, a rethinking of how we choose to live, or not live, with the vestiges of our past. The discussion is central to the cover story in this week’s LEO on Farmington Historic Plantation and Locust Grove, both of which kept enslaved people.
As for Castleman, let’s overlay the report’s four questions to see if it should be removed:
1. “Is the principal legacy of the subject depicted in the monument fundamentally at odds with current community values?”
The principal legacy of a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War cannot be whitewashed. He was unquestionably a traitor to his country. As a Confederate officer, the principal legacy is that of fighting for the oppression and enslavement of African-Americans.
The statue may have been erected to mark his prominent role in the creation of Louisville parks, but that, too, is tarnished. He also helped segregate them. As Courier Journal reported, “When Castleman was made aware of a group of African-Americans playing tennis in Cherokee Park, he responded by segregating the tennis courts.”
2. “Is the subject a potential rallying point for racist or bigoted groups?”
Racial tensions rose here over the Confederate monument at UofL. Then, when white nationalists rallied to save a Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, we in Louisville and elsewhere began to look more closely at our statues and monuments. Castleman was a Confederate officer who was exiled from the country and then pardoned.
But… the statue remains an insult to many non-white Southerners, particularly black Americans. So the answer is: Yes, the Castleman statue could be a rallying point for racist and bigoted groups.
3. “Does the object celebrate a part of history that a majority of Louisvillians believes is fundamental to who we are and what we believe?”
Courier Journal reports that it ran a story in 1918 describing how, upon Castleman’s death, his casket was draped with an American flag and a Confederate flag, per his wishes.
4. “Is the monument physically accessible to all Louisvillians and visitors? Does it make a nuanced, complex history accessible to its publics?”
It’s public, all right. Too public. And the fact that it has existed in such a public place for so long, representing something so many Louisvillians oppose, underscores why depicting appropriate, complex history is so difficult. Adding another explanatory plaque would be like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.
Look at the first Saturday every May — when we join together to sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” We celebrate Kentucky’s heritage by omitting its racist origins and language. Just because we don’t sing the original lyrics, that doesn’t devalue the meaning of the song for Kentuckians. Let’s remove Castleman.
After that, the city will have to look at the statue of publisher George Prentice, which resides outside of the Louisville Free Public Library downtown. Prentice’s principal legacy as a writer is littered with anti-Catholic, xenophobic editorials that helped incite the Bloody Monday riots here, killing 22 people.
Then, we’ll have future statues to debate about. I’ve got an idea for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s that I’d like to propose for 4522 Algonquin Parkway (home of the city sewage treatment plant).
But, first, the Castleman statue question must be resolved. And, by the criteria established for the city, there is no other solution than removing it from Cherokee Triangle.
Mayor Fischer, don’t wait another year.