MADISONVILLE, Ky. - There could have been two Civil War monuments in downtown Madisonville. One for each side in the struggle.
Instead, there currently is only one monument — and a debate is raging over whether there should be none. It’s a debate that could wind up in court.
“We will do everything that we physically and financially can do to keep it from being moved,” Fred Wilhite with the Kentucky Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) said Friday.
Wilhite’s organization claims partial ownership of the 29-foot-tall Confederate memorial statue on the old Hopkins County Courthouse lawn. A sister group, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, claimed it in full.
“Our country is a melting pot,” Kentucky Division President Susan McCrobie said. “We need to learn to live together and appreciate each other.”
What started with demonstrations on the lawn against the death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minnesota has become an online race for signatures concerning the statue. One petition would have the memorial “destroyed,” while the other would keep it.
While some of last weekend’s protesters don’t want to be connected to the statue debate, the sight of their actions inspired Madisonville’s Steven Cox to take one of his own. He’s been surprised at the response.
“We got over 5,000 (signatures) today,” Cox said by phone Friday afternoon.
“Until George Floyd, I was on a social media cleanse,” Cox said earlier in a Facebook message. He’d given up a Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate in January. “But I decided that I had to use what voice I still had to try and make a positive impact.”
Cox started his petition to remove the statue on Change.org Sunday, May 31. Bradley Boocher of Sacramento saw it, and responded with a counter-petition on the same site Wednesday. It had more than 2,800 signatures Friday afternoon.
“People deserve a choice,” Boocher said Friday. “Many people feel like they don’t have an option.”
“I appreciated him doing that,” Melissa Wiles of Madisonville said Friday, because Cox’s petition upset her.
“The worst thing you can do is delete all your history,” Wiles added. “That’s what history is for.”
The Hopkins County Judge-Executive found himself in the middle of the debate this week. Jack Whitfield Jr. said he’s trying to develop a compromise, but added any decision on the statue will ultimately be up to the Fiscal Court. Wilhite and McCrobie’s comments Friday could complicate that.
“It was not my intention to put him in a difficult corner,” Cox said. He hadn’t talked with Whitfield before late Friday.
The Fiscal Court actually helped pay for the Confederate statue more than 110 years ago. The Hopkins County Historical Society provided The Messenger with several newspaper articles explaining how it came to be.
The Madisonville Hustler, which predated The Messenger, reported in October 1907 that magistrates approved $300 for “the fund already raised by Mrs. Elizabeth B. Pearce and the others for the erection of a Confederate monument in the court house yard.” Pearce’s work to build a memorial began in 1904.
But the magistrates were willing to be fair and balanced. They also set aside $300 “for the erection of a Federal monument in the same square if it be requested under similar circumstances.”
A local advisory committee developed plans for a monument with a six-foot-tall soldier made in Italy at the top. His gun sits “at parade rest,” The Hustler reported in December 1907. But Wilhite said it may have been damaged by a lightning strike about 20 years ago.
The Camp of Confederate Veterans accepted the statue downtown in November 1908. It was unveiled the following May, following a parade during a reunion of the Second Kentucky Brigade of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV).
“City Surrenders to Old Soldiers,” a Hustler headline about the unveiling said. A retired general said it was part of a movement across the country that “proclaims to ages the gallantry, chivalry and courage...”
But during that spring, the Fiscal Court gave two men the reserved $300 to build a monument “for the Federal dead,” The Hustler reported. It was planned at the opposite corner of the court house grounds from the Confederate memorial, but never was built.
A group of trustees for the Confederate monument was selected in July 1909 by the “Madisonville Camp” of the UCV to care for it and maintain it.
The SCV claims to be “the direct heir” of the UCV. Wilhite is commander of the Owensboro camp, which meets every other month in Calhoun. Hopkins County has no chapter.
“For someone to call for destroying private property,” McCrobie said, “maybe the county attorney should look into that.”
This week’s debate is not simply a Hopkins County issue. Gov. Andy Beshear was asked at a Thursday briefing about a statue of the Confederate President inside the Capitol rotunda.
“I believe the statue of Jefferson Davis is a symbol that divides us,” Beshear said. “There should be a better place to put it in historical context.”
Wilhite said the “modern-day resistance to all things Confederate” has its roots in NAACP leadership of the early 1990s, which in recent years was joined by groups such as Black Lives Matters and Antifa.
“I’ve challenged them for years to meet us in an open forum,” Wilhite said.
Cox was not aware of the SCV until The Messenger mentioned it to him Friday. He also didn’t know about Boocher’s opposing petition.
“I guess I would say, good for them,” Cox said.
Boocher said the coronavirus spring inspired him to begin making changes. He calls the petition his first attempt to speak out.
“I’m really surprised, but at the same time, I’m not,” Boocher said of the interest. “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.”