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351 feet worth of controversy: Confederate monument stands tall in this Kentucky town

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TODD COUNTY, Ky. – Jason Meriwether refused to picnic in a place that glorified slavery.

Classes in local schools often brought their lunches to the land beneath a 351-foot monument dedicated to the man who served as president of the Confederate States of America, and, in turn, led the fight to preserve slavery in the South.

This obelisk, which marks the birthplace of Jefferson Davis, is the tallest unreinforced concrete structure in the world.

Three decades later, Meriwether, 41, still remembers skipping a middle school field trip just so he wouldn't have to go to the site.

He grew up in nearby Guthrie, and while it's impossible to not see that obelisk from the side of the road, as a Black man, he's avoided going to the park his whole life.

And now, Todd County, Kentucky, is getting one more Jefferson Davis icon.

More than two weeks of Black Lives Matter protests across the state garnered the removal of a different memorial to Davis from the Kentucky State Capitol Rotunda and prompted a string of other initiatives to combat systematic racism and police brutality across the country.

Related: After 84 years, Jefferson Davis statue removed from Kentucky Capitol

The statue, which stood in that spot of honor in the Capitol for nearly 84 years, was heading south for the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site grounds in Fairview in Todd County.

It's a place that waffles on the line of idolizing and preserving the darkest chapter in America's history. Or, as Meriwether put it, it's an area that seems to forget the Confederate Army lost the Civil War.

Meriwether ran track as a "Rebel" at Todd County Central High School, and that title still lives on in name today, even though the school's logo is just a "TC." He remembers the tension in town in the mid-'90s when the school replaced that Rebel imagery on the gym floor with a map of the county instead.

"As happy as I am that (statue) is going to come out of the Statehouse, it makes me sick that it’s going to come right out of there and into Fairview," he told the Louisiville Courier Journal of the USA TODAY Network.

Jason Meriwether
Jason Meriwether

Opinion: Davis represented what's wrong with our country. Kentucky showed what's right

A source of 'pride' and 'heritage'

I first spotted the obelisk early Friday morning peeking up from the countryside like a giant pencil among the trees. Without the 23 miles of historic roadside markers leading up to it, from a distance, it’s impossible to guess what it is.

Last Thursday, Gov. Andy Beshear called Davis' statue in the Capitol an offensive symbol of slavery and asked that it be moved to another location.

Friday morning, as the Historic Properties Advisory Commission prepared to vote to pull it from the Capitol, I went to Davis' birthplace to check the mood in Todd County and see the state-funded museum that tells the failed president's life story.

The commission's vote is the latest in a string of anti-racism efforts stemming from the deaths of Breonna Taylor, who was shot March 13 by Louisville Metro Police officers serving a no-knock search warrant, and George Floyd, who was killed May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer pushed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

The group voted 11-1 to pull Davis from that prominent spot in the Capitol and the palettes would be laid to remove him Saturday morning.

But, you can't remove a 350-foot obelisk with a few palettes and a crane.

In Louisville: How a technicality finally brought down the Castleman statue

The sign for Jefferson Davis Hotel sticks out from the side of the building that has been refurnished into a boutique store and apartments at downtown in Elkton, KY., on Friday, June 12, 2020.
The sign for Jefferson Davis Hotel sticks out from the side of the building that has been refurnished into a boutique store and apartments at downtown in Elkton, KY., on Friday, June 12, 2020.

When you ask people what the area is known for, they describe a family-friendly place. Over the years, downtown Elkton, the county seat of Todd County, has turned into a destination for charter buses that bring in visitors to shop the boutiques and have a bite to eat.

When asked about the Davis monument, some residents forced an awkward smile and said kindly that they didn't want to talk about something that controversial. People are upset about it, they told me, and feel like they're trying to erase history by removing statues or monuments.

Some people called the structure a point of "pride" and "heritage."

Two days later, Meriwether, who has a doctorate from Indiana State University and who serves as vice president of enrollment management at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, was very clear with me about how he feels about Todd County and its attitude when we spoke on the phone.

Todd County is his home, and there are good people there.

But the area, which sits near the Tennessee border, is also a conflicted place where it's extremely difficult to talk about being Black. The foundation of white privilege has played out over generations in hiring practices, lending, education, policing, health care, politics and access to wealth, Meriwether said.

"There are people who generally care about unity and positivity, but there are a lot of people that are hanging on to these antebellum ideas," he told me.

See also: Ja Morant has asked for removal of a Confederate statue in Kentucky

'It's part of our history'

Searching the square in Elkton, it's hard to find overt traces of that history. I didn't spot a Confederate flag, but on that day, I didn't see a single business or home with a Black Lives Matter sign either.

An aging "Hotel Jefferson Davis" sign on a historic looking building seemed to be the only indication in this business hub that the Confederate president had any tie to Todd County.

Inside, Darlene Groves, who owns the Something Special boutique, was gift-wrapping a package with a yellow bow. My eyes followed the merchandise up a grand staircase and landed on the shop's bright pink tin ceiling.

A few of the customers — who didn't want to talk about Davis — told me Groves was a retired art teacher and this shop is a service to the community.

When she finished with the package, Groves explained she didn't own the building and didn't know the history of that sign.

"This is a very calm place; it's like a little Mayberry," she told me. The area is mostly made up of farmers, the Amish community and teachers.

When I turned the conversation to the monument, she told me the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site is more of a park than anything else, but she thinks it's important to keep in the community.

"History is what it is, and you learn from that history and don't make that mistake again," she told me.

A little while later, I met Hunter Johnson at Cotton & Ink on the other side of the square.

I didn't have to tell him about the vote on the statue in the state's capital of Frankfort — he already knew. More than 15 people had brought it up in his shop that morning, including two women who gabbed about it for two hours. A couple of customers browsing the shelves nodded in agreement.

He also knew just who I needed to talk to.

He placed a quick phone call and in about three minutes, Carolyn Wells, a retired high school English teacher, appeared in the store sporting a T-shirt featuring the town's courthouse.

Carolyn Wells, a retired high school English Teacher, chats about the history of Todd County and Jefferson Davis at Cotton and Ink in Elkton, KY., on Friday, June 12, 2020.
Carolyn Wells, a retired high school English Teacher, chats about the history of Todd County and Jefferson Davis at Cotton and Ink in Elkton, KY., on Friday, June 12, 2020.

Todd County has had problems with racism, she told me, but there are good people in the county who love and respect everyone. She referenced a memorial she recently attended that brought in a crowd of white, Black, Mexican and Amish people to honor one of the area's elders.

It's a friendly place and visitors enjoy the square.

Johnson said that's why he planted his business here instead of in his hometown of nearby Russellville.

"People that ain’t from here, they think, 'Oh my God, they’re these rednecks that hate Black people,' and that’s not at all what it is," Johnson said.

Wells pulled a copy of a coffee table book from Historic Todd County Inc. from the shelves. Its pages outline a variety of local icons, including some with diverse backgrounds, in the tiny county of 12,000 people.

She flipped to the part on the obelisk and gestured to a quote from Davis, which she said shows he sought reconciliation at the end of his life.

Like a true teacher, she asked me to read it out loud.

"Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to take your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished for — a reunited country," it read.

Davis was a leader, and if things had gone differently he might have run for president of the United States, she told me. He was "extremely qualified" and "extremely intelligent."

"He’s a man who had a lot of abilities and talents, and we need to look at those abilities and talents, and not just the fact that he was the one that was dubbed the leader of the Confederacy," she said.

In her eyes, the monument honors a man who was born in Todd County.

"It's part of our history, you learn from the history," she told me just before we left the shop.

Telling an honest history with every wart, blemish

Eight miles away in Fairview, park manager David Smith met me at the base of that giant monument.

He's a friendly man who took over the park in 2017, and he's meticulous about the narrative in the museum.

He did away with selling Confederate flags in the museum's gift shop a few years back. You'll still see that symbol in the store, but only if it's accompanied by the American flag, too.

As for Davis, Smith says it's his job to tell the story of the whole man and that means every "wart" and "blemish" that comes with it.

When he speaks to student groups, he doesn't gloss over slavery.

Children don't always understand what that term means, he told me, so when he goes into figures about how many people the Davis family owned, he refers to them as what they are — "human beings" rather than slaves.

I reached out to Kentucky's Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet to see if changes were in the works given this latest nationwide push for the removal of Confederate symbols.

The spokesperson told me the Department of Parks does intend to review the site to make sure that it has an "accurate and inclusive representation of history."

People in the area predominantly use the grounds as a picnic spot, Smith told me, and the park isn't advertised. There are Civil War enthusiasts who seek it out, but most of the people who pass through are curious to learn what that pointed thing is along the side of the highway.

A lot of them can't recall who Jefferson Davis was or his place in history, he said.

The Bethel Baptist Church steeple and Jefferson Davis Monument pierce the sky next to one another from a view across West Jefferson Davis Hwy in Fairview, KY., on Friday, June 12, 2020.
The Bethel Baptist Church steeple and Jefferson Davis Monument pierce the sky next to one another from a view across West Jefferson Davis Hwy in Fairview, KY., on Friday, June 12, 2020.

'A failed and wrong part of our history'

I ended my day in Todd County sitting across from Nina Rudder, who was about 24 hours away from a historic first for Elkton.

She'd organized a Black Lives Matter "unity walk" for Saturday afternoon and had invited to Meriwether to speak at the event.

Two days later on the phone, the Todd County native recapped his speech for me. He recited one list of Black people, including Taylor and Floyd, who were killed in police custody without a trial, and another one of notorious white killers such as James Holmes, who murdered 12 people and injured 70 in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012 and still got a day in court.

He talked about the history of the Confederate flag, which at one point was revised by William Tappan Thompson to add more white to the symbol.

Meriwether quoted Thompson in his remarks:

"As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race." Thompson further states, "As a national emblem, it (the Confederate flag) is significant of our higher cause, the cause of the superior race."

That's the kind history people are clinging to with these flags and monuments, he said.

The whole event garnered about 100 to 150 people and the support of police and local officials. It also drew out a simultaneous rally of armed, white, Second Amendment supporters stationed on the square waiting for the walkers to arrive.

Meriwether hunts and supports the Second Amendment, too, but he saw this as an "act of intimidation" meant to send a message to people uniting with the Black community.

A maintenance worker mows the lawn outside a church while the Jefferson Davis monument looms in the background along Fairview United Methodist Church in Fairview, KY., on Friday, June 12, 2020.
A maintenance worker mows the lawn outside a church while the Jefferson Davis monument looms in the background along Fairview United Methodist Church in Fairview, KY., on Friday, June 12, 2020.

When his middle-school-age son asked why the people with guns were there, he told the boy to just keep marching.

I thanked him for sharing his experience with me. Before we got off the phone, I turned the question back to the monument one more time.

And to my surprise, that's where he planned to take his family before his trip to Kentucky ended.

He wanted his kids to see it and compare it to the facts about slavery that aren't always in the history books. He wanted to educate himself and his family about exactly what kind of history was being told there.

He didn't like growing up in the shadow of that monument. Being a Black child in a community with a structure glorifying Jefferson Davis was difficult.

But that 351 feet worth of concrete isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Neither are the claims of history and heritage I heard throughout town.

"It’s a failed and wrong part of our history," he told me. "We have to be honest about it.

"You’re clinging to a heritage that was built off white supremacy, if you can knowingly do that, that’s racism."

Follow Louisville Courier Journal's features writer Maggie Menderski on Twitter @MaggieMenderski

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Jefferson Davis' Kentucky hometown struggles with controversial legacy

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