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Kentucky Law Journal Symposium Examines Controversial American Monuments

KLJ Symposium in Grand Courtroom

The annual Kentucky Law Journal Symposium at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law explored diverse perspectives on controversial American monuments and statues.

The theme – Written in Stone: American Monuments and Monument-Protection Law – got its name from a book written by Sanford Levinson, who provided the opening keynote presentation at the symposium held in the G. Chad Perry III Grand Courtroom of the law building in November. The first edition of his book, Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies, was published in 1998 followed by a second edition 20 years later.

Levinson addressed the reasons monuments and statues of individuals are erected and why those reasons often backfire. A monument is meant to celebrate and honor someone in perpetuity, but people walk by a vast number of statues without knowing the history. A few statues, such as those of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are recognizable to the larger public and not just history buffs, Levinson said.

Levinson addressed the question of who gets to decide which individuals should be honored with statues and monuments. He pointed to influential American statesman John C. Calhoun, a supporter of slavery, as someone with a complex history.  

 “I don’t have an answer to the question of who ought to make the decisions,” Levinson said.

KLJ Editor-in-Chief Kyle S. Schroader said he enjoyed learning more about the context in which many of the statues being debated across the country were erected.

“The UK historians provided maps and data that revealed the time periods in which these statues were erected across the country and discussed the social implications and reasoning behind their placement at the time. It was fascinating,” said Schroader, referring to UK history professors who presented at the symposium.

In addition, Melynda Price, John L. Matthews Jr. Professor of Law and Director of the Gaines Center for the Humanities at UK, presented with Anastasia Curwood, Associate Professor of History and Director of African American and Africana Studies at UK, to discuss a 1934 mural in UK’s Memorial Hall, which depicts several slaves hunched in a field and has become a subject of debate.

Summer Bablitz, special features editor of the Kentucky Law Journal, said the students enjoyed creating a platform for diverse speakers to look at Confederate monuments through a historical and legal lens.

“I particularly enjoyed Steve Clowney’s presentation, which explored the idea of sorority houses as a type of Confederate monument,” Bablitz said.

Clowney, a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, showed pictures of sorority houses and pointed out similarities in the architecture to antebellum plantations. “I argue that we should view sorority houses as monuments to the Confederacy,” Clowney said. He also noted the lack of diversity in sororities and exclusionary practices such as high fees.

During lunch, Judge Robert L. Wilkins, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, described the 100-year journey that led to the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray recalled debate about Confederate statues in Lexington while he was mayor. The statues were eventually moved from downtown Lexington to the Lexington Cemetery. 

“There’s no perfect time to do the right thing,” Gray said. “It’s all the time.”

Schroader said he hopes attendees of the symposium developed a better understanding of monument conflicts.

“The debate around the movement of monuments is not only rooted in political and social debate but is also heavily governed by the law,” Schroader said. “Specifically, I hope the audience was able to see the legal implications between the levels of government involved in the monument removal process and the legal challenges and obstacles those in favor of removal face.”

By Shawntaye Hopkins