I am a relative newcomer to Kentucky, having moved here from Louisiana 29 years ago. My wife’s family has been in Hopkins County for more than 200 years. I am the descendant of a Confederate veteran.
The question that the members of this Hopkins County Fiscal Court must weigh is this: Will we, as a community, allow a handful of vocal activists to erase our county’s history by making changes to the Madisonville town square in order to appease the feelings of those who believe that history has done them wrong?
The question is a rhetorical one, because we as a community already did that. In 1909, we allowed the Daughters of the Confederacy to put up a monument whose purpose was just that — to erase, and rewrite history, so that they no longer had to live with the stigma assigned to the actions of the men in their families who chose to fight for the Confederacy.
Some folks might argue that this monument represents our county’s history. I would argue, strenuously, that it does not; that it blatantly and intentionally falsifies our county’s history in order to render noble the ignoble actions of a handful of men.
The courthouse monument states, in prominent relief letters, that it is dedicated to our confederate dead. “They heard their country’s call,” it says. That is an out-and-out lie — a falsehood no matter how you sit.
If you are of the opinion that the South was in open rebellion against its legitimate government, then these men did not fight for their country. They were traitors who fought an armed insurrection against the United States of America.
If you take the other view, that the South had every right to secede and was a legitimate country defending itself from northern aggression, then these men were still traitors. Kentucky did not join the confederacy. If one is of the opinion that the Confederate States of America was a sovereign country, then that means that Kentuckians who fought for it left their homes to fight alongside foreign troops against American soldiers.
It is the reason that Kentuckians were excluded from the general amnesty for Confederate soldiers. And it is the reason that the Daughters of the Confederacy worked so hard to erect monuments in every county of Kentucky; to deliberately erase this fact, and to try and rewrite history to reflect their favorable views of their fathers and husbands.
Historically, this monument not only misrepresents the Confederate soldiers that it celebrates, but it misrepresents our county. The line of support for the confederacy ended about halfway up Christian County; Hopkins County, and Madisonville within it, were loyal to the United States of America, and for that loyalty we were attacked and our courthouse was burned.
Putting a monument to the Confederates right in the spot where they attacked our town is akin to putting up a monument celebrating Al Qaeda where the Twin Towers once stood.
But putting aside the deliberate ahistoricity of the monument, let us look to what it represents. To try and separate the institution of slavery from the confederacy is impossible; we have all heard the argument that the South was fighting for State’s Rights, but, leaving aside entirely the legitimacy of that argument, one of the rights that every single state in the confederacy sought to maintain was the ability to legally buy, sell, rape, torture, breed, and murder human beings.
To take children from their mothers. To take husbands from their wives. To treat human beings like livestock, stripped of the very rights that our founding document claim were given to them by our Creator. Kentucky, of course, does not have a secession document, but read the secession document from the confederate states, and you will see that slavery was absolutely central to their own view of secession and statehood.
To many, many people, the monument that towers over our town square represents a celebration of slavery. Regardless of the motives of the handful of Hopkins County men who chose to kill American soldiers on behalf of the confederacy, regardless of whether or not the preservation of slavery had anything to do with their decision to ally themselves with the soldiers of the South, that is what the statue represents to many residents of Hopkins County.
It tells our citizens, and those who would visit us, that we hold in high esteem those who would kill to ensure that it remain legal for rich southerners to own human beings and mistreat and dispose of them according to their whims.
It is heartbreaking, infuriating, and unjust that the black people of Hopkins County cannot move through the town square of their own county seat without seeing a monument to those who fought to ensure that neither they nor their children nor their grandchildren should be allowed their own humanity.
And not just our black neighbors; it is heartbreaking, infuriating, and unjust that any Hopkins County citizens who, motivated by their faith or their patriotism or their sense of morality, cannot move through their own town square without seeing that same monument and being overwhelmed with shame, pity, and fury.
And it is an afront to the character of those who would call this county home that this monument stands in our square, proclaiming to the world that we of Hopkins County esteem the confederacy and what it represents.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy have claimed that they own the statue; the Kentucky Sons of the Confederacy have claimed partial ownership. If these groups wish to assert ownership rights, I would suggest that we let them. If this is their private property, then it has no place on our public square, where it currently purports to speak for its citizens.
Should they wish to place it on private land, where those who wish to visit and pay their respects to those it memorializes can do so, I certainly have no objection. And should they agree to allow the Hopkins County Historical Society, of which I am a proud member, to place the Italian Marble portion of the statue in its museum or on its grounds, that would allow it the context to be truly viewed historically.
To allow this monument to stand on the grounds of the old courthouse is to allow the DOC to succeed in having attempted to rewrite our history and bamboozle future generations of Hopkins County citizens.
I believe that many of the folks who argue that removing it erases history are making that argument in bad faith; they wish for it to remain in order to do that which it set out to do in the first place: to celebrate the confederacy and what it stood for, and whether it is their intention or not, that celebration serves as a giant “not welcome” sign to the people of this community who don’t share my skin color. Hopkins County is better than that. We are better than that.
Chris Schweizer is an author, illustrator, woodworker, and former educator who lives in Madisonville, Kentucky. He is a member of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Hopkins County Historical and Genealogical Societies, and currently serves as president of the Hopkins County-Madisonville Friends of the Library.