This is one of the several articles about the John B. Castleman statue in the May 8 issue of LEO. To read the rest, go here.
After the Confederate monument on Third Street was removed in 2016, I drew a cartoon for LEO that asked whether the John B. Castleman statue must be next to go.
When white supremacists laid siege to Charlottesville in 2017 over a Confederate statue there, I wrote that it was time for Castleman to be removed from the Cherokee Triangle.
Finally, in August 2018, Mayor Greg Fischer announced that the city would move the statue.
Yet, Castleman stands there today, while city board after city board ponders its fate.
We as a city can do better.
Let me tell you a story…
I visited Russell Springs recently for a long weekend at Cumberland Lake State Resort Park. The drive there was bucolic, twisting and dotted with many, many signs for churches. It didn’t look like Louisville, which was nice, but I knew for certain that I had left home when we stopped in at an antique store on the main road just outside of the park. The Confederate flag was small but visible from the road. The Trump bumper sticker was affixed prominently by the cash register. The shop was clean, well ordered and presided over by a man who told me he is in his 70s and that he does not like Louisville.
“Too many (a slur for black people) and too many stoplights,” he told me.
“Really?” I replied, perhaps visibly shocked that the owner of a business would be so bold as to volunteer his base racism with a customer. “Why don’t you like black people?”
He offered some bullshit and then noted: “Well, you don’t see any black people around here, do you?”
He was right about that. African Americans make up an estimated .9% of Russell Springs.
What the encounter told me is: This was not first time he had displayed his bigotry to a customer; it must be generally accepted, or he wouldn’t do it; and people in Louisville do not understand what it is like out in the state unless they are from there.
Now, hold on! I am not saying that the state is filled entirely with racists who don’t like stoplights. But, consider this:
When Derby-goers sang “My Old Kentucky Home”and shed tears Saturday, how many knew it is not the original version? In 1986, state Rep. Carl Hines and state Sen. Georgia Davis Powers introduced resolutions to replace “darkies” in the song with “people.” “My Old Kentucky Home” remains controversial. It tells the story of a slave being sold down river, but, somehow… somehow it has become the state anthem.
Elected in 1967, Powers and Reps. Mae Street Kidd and Hughes McGill tied as just the 10th, 11th and 12th African Americans in the General Assembly since 1792. The first in Kentucky and in the South since Reconstruction was Rep. Charles W. Anderson, elected in 1935 (as a Republican!). The legislature has had only 30 black people since him (with a notable gap that state Rep. Attica Scott closed in 2016 as the first black woman elected since 1998). Today, eight members of the 138-member legislature are black, just 5.8%, as compared to 8.35% of the state population. (For those following along, between 11 and 12 black lawmakers would equal black representation in the state.)
And even now, in 2019, the experience is not great for black lawmakers. The Courier Journal reported that some in the Black Legislative Caucus felt the 2019 session was “marred by instances of inflammatory or insensitive rhetoric they believe have served to expose a gulf between GOP lawmakers and those of color, largely in the Republican-controlled House.”
Surprised? Well, our Republican governor was surprised to learn that black children belong to a chess club.
The state Capitol still houses a statue of Jefferson Davis, a Kentucky native who was the Confederate States president.
Kentucky has not been welcoming to African Americans.
Neither has Louisville, even though its population is about 23% black.
Louisville is still scarred by redlining from decades ago. Our police routinely roust black drivers. And now, we’re debating whether to remove the statue of a man who fought as a Confederate, tried to free Confederate soldiers from prison, was exiled briefly and was buried in a coffin draped with Confederate and U.S. flags.
The discussion about whether he rehabilitated himself after the Civil War and whether he worked for racial equality is irrelevant. As Fischer said upon announcing his decision to move the statue, “My threshold question was whether this statue would be appropriate in a predominately African American neighborhood. The answer obviously is no. It would be viewed as disrespectful of a historic and painful past.”
Castleman may be fine in a Russell Springs antique shop, but not here. We owe it to our neighbors to think about how they feel and move it finally. Let’s honor and encourage our city’s diversity… and revel in our stoplights.