Louisville Votes To Move Controversial Castleman Statue

May 9, 2019
Originally published on May 9, 2019 4:11 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today in Kentucky, Louisville officials decided to remove a controversial statue after almost two years of debate. The John Breckinridge Castleman monument shows a man on a horse. The history of that man, including his service in the Confederate Army, came under scrutiny after the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., nearly two years ago. As Ashlie Stevens of member station WFPL reports, the debate about the statue's removal points to how difficult it still is to reconcile this country's complicated past.

ASHLIE STEVENS, BYLINE: Not long after the Charlottesville rally in 2017, people in Louisville took to the streets demanding the removal of the Castleman statue.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Mayor Fischer, take it down.

STEVENS: Protesters carried Black Lives Matter signs and demanded that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer remove the statue.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Mayor Fischer, take it down.

STEVENS: A request that, after months of debate, today the city's landmarks committee voted to do.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The motion is approved. The appeal is approved with the condition.

(APPLAUSE)

STEVENS: All across the southern United States, cities from New Orleans, La., Birmingham, Ala., and Lexington, Ky., have grappled with their Confederate statues. In 2016, Louisville removed a 70-foot-tall monument to two fallen Confederate soldiers on the University of Louisville campus. But to many, the Castleman statue was different. Mayor Fischer described it as having many more nuances. Even historians struggle with it. Here's Dewey Clayton, a University of Louisville political science professor discussing Castleman's complex history and whether he was just simply a product of his time.

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DEWEY CLAYTON: We've got different people interpreting things here. But we're talking about the whole city here. We need to keep the whole city's values and look at it in that context, OK? Separate but equal was no panacea.

STEVENS: Castleman served in the Confederate Army, and though he was pardoned for his service, he requested his casket be draped with both the American and Confederate flags, which for many was reason enough for the monument to be removed. But the statue depicts Castleman in plain clothes instead of a Confederate uniform and is placed at the entrance to one of the city's largest parks, one of many he helped create. For them, that was reason enough for it to stay.

After Charlottesville, as protests increased in Louisville and the statue was vandalized, the city created a monuments committee. Its task - to try to answer who should be honored with statues. Committee members Chris Reitz and Ashley Haynes.

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ASHLEY HAYNES: All we can do is say what our values are today.

CHRIS REITZ: It seems to me that the only way we can do this is to ask the question, would we install this monument today?

STEVENS: The meetings continued for months, and passionate residents like historians Cathy Shannon and Jim Prichard turned out.

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JIM PRICHARD: I find it strange that a man who, after the Civil War, dedicated his life to the city, the community and the nation might be disrespected as a racist.

CATHY SHANNON: I appreciate Mayor Fischer wanting to even visit taking down these monuments. They represent the worst time in this country.

STEVENS: The meeting showed a community largely divided about honoring the past, even if the past is difficult to reconcile today. And like the rest of Louisville, the landmarks commission was split. It voted 5-3 today to remove the Castleman monument. Chris Hartman is the chairman.

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CHRIS HARTMAN: I'm sad that it has taken us this long to come to this conclusion, but I am glad that we have.

STEVENS: As for the statue, it will now be moved to the Louisville cemetery where Castleman is buried. For NPR News, I'm Ashlie Stevens in Louisville, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.