Last Friday, University of Louisville president James Ramsey and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer held a surprise press conference to announce a Confederate monument would be moved “to a more appropriate place.” That place is yet to be determined. The 70-foot-tall monument, which was erected in 1895 and includes three bronze statues of Confederate soldiers, currently stands near the Speed Art Museum, FOX News reported.
“We don’t consider ourselves in Louisville to be part of the South,” the mayor later told the Courier-Journal.
Kentucky, in fact, was never part of the Confederacy. Along with the other “border states” — Delaware, Missouri and Maryland — it was a slave state but never seceded from the Union during the Civil War.
The announcement came about a week after University of Louisville professor of Pan-African studies Ricky Jones wrote an op-ed in the Courier-Journal, demanding the monument, which he referred to as a “towering granite and bronze eyesore glorifying the nadir of America’s past,” be removed.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” Jones told FOX News after the surprise announcement. “I think this statue being on the campus is somewhat akin to flying the Confederate flag over the (university’s) administration building.”
But his excitement may have been premature.
On Monday, Jefferson Circuit Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman issued a restraining order forbidding the city of Louisville from removing the statue, according to WKYT. The order was sought by Everett Corley, a Republican real estate agent running for Congress, who filed a lawsuit against Fischer over the plan to remove the Confederate statue; Corley called removing the statue akin to “book burning,” WDRB reported.
“This monument was not built to glorify either side of the Civil War,” Corley said of the statue, which has “To Our Confederate Dead” and “A Tribute to the Rank and File of the Armies of the South” inscribed in it. “It was to soberly and solemnly remember the countless thousands of veterans killed in the slaughter of war.”
That same day, Mayor Fischer announced the formation of a historic preservation task force that would find new ways to honor the city’s heritage.
A hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. Thursday to consider Corley’s motion for a full temporary injunction.
The Derby, which begins three days later, comes with a long history of racial strife.
In many ways, that strife is at the center of Hunter S. Thompson’s famous 1970 piece of Gonzo journalism about the Derby titled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” The story contains all the traditional characteristics of a Thompson piece — rampant alcohol and drug use, biting commentary, larger-than-life characters — but at its center is the fear of a race riot occurring at the event and an anxious sense of the strained racial relations in America at the time.
After Thompson, who wrote the piece in first-person, tells a bartender nicknamed Jimbo of his fears that both members of the Black Panthers and white supremacists will storm the Derby, Jimbo reacts: The Derby is no place for such things.
From the piece:
“The Kentucky Derby! No! … That’s almost too bad to believe! … Why here? … What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?”“Not here,” I said, picking up my bag. “Thanks for the drink … and good luck.”
Jimbo might have been hitting the sauce a little too hard that day, though, because the Run for the Roses — and horse racing in general — has long been a hotbed for racial conflict.
Most notably, in 1967, all Derby Week events were canceled, including the annual parade, due to civil rights protests. The Ku Klux Klan announced it would attend that year’s race in full garb, prepared to impose its own kind of order, according to The Awl.
Black jockeys didn’t fare much better than the fans. In 1961, Jimmy Winkfield, who had ridden winners in the Derby in 1901 and 1902 — and is incidentally the last African American to ride a winner in the race — was invited by Sports Illustrated to watch the Derby at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. When he arrived, he was told he couldn’t enter through the front door, CNN reported.
NPR has described black jockeys at the Derby as “a sight that’s been a rarity in the race for much of the past century. In fact, when Marlon St. Julien rode in 2000, he was the first black rider in the race in 79 years. A piece from History.com titled “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Black Jockeys” explains why so few African Americans won, or even participated in racing in the 1900s:
Emboldened by the societal changes, resentful white jockeys at northern raceways conspired to force blacks off the track, in some cases literally. During the 1900 racing season, white jockeys in New York warned trainers and owners not to mount any black riders if they expected to win. They carried out their threats by boxing in black jockeys and riding them into—and sometimes over—the rails. In a cruel irony, free sons of former slaves felt the sting of whips directed their ways during races. Race officials looked the other way. Owners realized that black riders had little chance of winning given the interference.
Just last month, members of the Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority at Dartmouth University voted to switch the theme of its annual invitation-only party from the Kentucky Derby to Woodstock after the party was protested last year for having racist undertones. Ninety-six percent of the house voted in favor of the change, after members of the sorority met with the Afro-American Society, whose members accused the Derby of being a racist institution.
The scene playing out in Louisville, though, is larger than simply the horse races. The drive to remove symbols of the confederacy picked up steam last year after Dylan Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in the heart of Charleston, S.C., and allegedly killed nine unarmed black worshippers.
On July 10 of last year, the Confederate battle flag was removed from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds after 54 years of fluttering in the wind above Columbia. On Dec. 17, 2015, New Orleans officials voted to remove four Confederate monuments scattered around the city, a move Mayor Mitch Landrieu called a “courageous decision to turn a page on our divisive past.”
Debates like these will likely continue to crop up as the South walks the tightrope of honoring its ancestors while reckoning with its Confederate history. In 1970, Thompson suggested that some aspects of the South are bound to change.
Toward the end of his Derby piece, he wrote, “So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”
Some seem to agree with the sentiment.
“The old South, and the antebellum schtick that Louisville has sometimes attached to is not constructive,” co-chair of Louisville’s new historic panel Keith Runyon told the Courier-Journal. “This is a dynamic monument, a ‘we’ll rise again’ sort of thing.’ And just over time some things become outdated, and I think this one is.”