Misinterpretations, a bad precedent: Don’t move the Castleman Statue

This is one of the several articles about the John B. Castleman statue that appeared in the May 8 issue of LEO Weekly. To read the rest, go here.

A bad precedent should not be established by removing the John B. Castleman statue since this will open up a Pandora’s Box of other bad decisions.

First though, let’s get one thing clear: The Louisville parks were integrated under Castleman’s tenure on the Board of Park Commissioners. The misinterpretation that the parks were segregated results from an out-of-context quote by Castleman in an article published in the Courier Journal on Nov. 9, 1916. Castleman does note that the “recreation” grounds and, more specifically, the playgrounds, tennis courts, etc. within the parks were to some extent separated. However, this was due in part to the Louisville school policy of “separate but equal” for city schoolchildren who used the parks for recreation and their annual school picnics. Overall, though, the parks were open to all races.

The parks were not fully racially segregated until 1924, six years after Castleman’s death. In fact, a group of African American leaders, objecting to the parks’ segregation, wrote a letter to the editor on July 4, 1924, praising Castleman for keeping the parks integrated while he was alive.

A few other clarifications of Castleman’s life that seem to be of concern: Yes, he was in the Confederacy, but he later served in the U.S. Army where he received his the rank of general. His statue bears no military symbolism. It is clearly not a Confederate monument. The horse he is riding is a saddlebred.

While he used derogatory language in his memoirs, he did not advocate hatred against minority residents as did Louisville newspaper editor George Dennison Prentice. Even today, anyone listening to pop music or political discourse can hear a lot of derogatory words as well. Muhammad Ali and Colonel Sanders also used non-PC references per today’s standards.

I highly recommend the book “Life Behind A Veil: Blacks in Louisville 1865-1930” by Dr. George C. Wright, who is a distinguished African American professor and recently president of Prairie View A&M University. It provides a clear understanding of the African American culture in Louisville during Castleman’s time period, and I feel it dispels the racist charges against him.

Now, if the civic leadership still seeks to remove the statue for political reasons, then it needs to be aware of the unintended consequences it will set and that certainly will come back to haunt them.

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If the Castleman statue can be removed for misinterpretations and allegations, then why is our county named for a famous slaveholder and our city the namesake of a French king who was so unpopular that his people cut off his head?

Just recently in Lexington, a mural featuring slaves was covered. On our waterfront, there is a sculpture of slaves in bondage. The relatives of George Rogers Clark owned slaves, as did the Speeds. And, J. B. Speed approved of the parks’ “separate but equal facilities.” Journalist Henry Watterson supported the Confederacy and Mayor Charles Farnsley famously used a gun to protect the former Confederate monument from being removed.

And, a month ago, the city unveiled a banner of Enid Yandell whose father, uncle and grandfather were all in the Confederacy. She also won the competition to design the original Confederate monument.

So, if Castleman is removed, shouldn’t logic follow that we also remove the statues of Thomas Jefferson in front of Metro Hall, King Louis XVI at the corner of Jefferson and Sixth streets, chained slaves at the Lincoln sculpture, George Rogers Clark on the Belvedere, Charles Farnsley on West Main Street and the Yandell banner and rename the Watterson Expressway and J. B. Speed Art Museum? And, some might argue that the banners of local icons Colonel Sanders and Muhammad Ali should be reviewed.

The criterion of would these statues be welcome in all parts of Louisville sets an impossible standard to uphold in this politically-correct cleansing of history.

Castleman was not a saint, but he also was not the devil his detractors have charged. Let’s base the Castleman statue decision on the facts and not misrepresentations of history. •

Steve Wiser is an architect, a member of the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows and a local historian who has written many books on Louisville history.

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