Davis’ bicentennial eclipsed by Lincoln

Over the last few months, celebrations for Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday have drawn attention to the Kentucky native’s life and his legacy as president. But the 200-year anniversary of another Kentucky president’s birth, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, is receiving mixed reviews.

“I’ll say it this way — winners write history,” said Ron Bryant, a Lexington historian writing a book on Davis. “We need heroes, we need villains. Lincoln became a hero and Davis a villain.”

Davis was born in what is now Todd County, Ky., in 1808, one year before Lincoln. Davis served as the only president of the 11 southern states that seceded from the Union between 1861 and 1865. The Confederate States of America surrendered in 1865, and Davis was locked in prison the same year.

Despite being denounced by many civil rights groups, signs of Davis’ legacy can still be found throughout the state.

In Southwest Kentucky, a structure resembling the Washington Monument stands in memory of Davis. At 351 feet tall, the Jefferson Davis Monument is the fourth largest freestanding obelisk in the world, according to Kentucky State Parks.

Although Kentucky never seceded from the Union, a statue of Davis stands in the rotunda in the state’s Capitol building.

“The Civil War is still very much alive in many places,” said Cliff Howard, a Jefferson Davis impersonator. “Kentucky was on both sides of the fence. It still is.”

Having heard of Kentucky’s reputation for “being a little backward,” integrated strategic communications senior James Davidson Jr. was not surprised about Davis’ statue in the Capitol building.

Davidson, first-vice president of UK’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said a statue of Davis leaves a bad impression.

“What is Frankfort saying to the rest of Kentucky with it being there?” Davidson said. “I respect everyone’s heritage and Southern tradition, but given the history, I think it shouldn’t be there.”

The statue of Davis, installed in 1936, is one of five statues in the Capitol building. Lincoln is the largest in the center, and Davis stands in the corner behind his right shoulder. Former Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay, physician and drafter of the state constitution Ephraim McDowell and former Vice President Alben Barkley also stand in the rotunda.

The last time Davis’ statue came into debate was 2003, when a coalition of African-American groups protested its presence in the Capitol building. A state advisory committee left the issue up to former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who took no action during his term.

Gov. Steve Beshear does not plan to remove the statue because Davis is a historical figure who represents part of Kentucky’s cultural history, a spokeswoman said.

Student Government President Nick Phelps said his feelings on the statue in the Capitol building resembled how he felt during a controversy two years ago about a 46-foot mural in Memorial Hall depicting the history of Lexington and its surrounding area. The mural, which some said stereotyped American Indians and blacks, was not removed.

“I was not in support of removing the mural, so I would not support removing Jefferson Davis,” Phelps said. “I don’t think we should remove history. I think it removes the question, ‘Who is he?’ ”

Many students might ask the same question about Davis.

In Kentucky, the Civil War is part of the middle school curriculum. Unless students take an advanced placement history course in high school, that’s usually the last time they focus on 19th century American history, said Nayasha Owens-Morton, a U.S. history and African-American history teacher at Bryan Station Traditional High School.

William Campbell has taught a class on Lincoln at UK for about 10 years as an English and honors professor. Students going into his class know little about the confederate president, he said.

“About Jefferson Davis, Kentuckians tend to know that he was from our state, that there’s a memorial dedicated to him somewhere in the state, and that he was the president of the Confederacy,” Campbell said. “Of Lincoln’s writings, most have read only the Gettysburg Address. Of Davis’s writings, most have read nothing.”