Earlier this year, Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster statue was removed amid the nation's wider reassessment of other public art, especially Confederate statues and similar monuments to institutional bigotry.
This week saw two such historical reckonings down the Ohio River in the state that Foster lionized in "My Old Kentucky Home." (Incidentally, that is still sung at the Kentucky Derby each year, omitting the offensive lyric that reflected the kind of condescending racism that led to opposition to the Foster statue here).
On Tuesday, the city of Louisville removed the statue of 19th century newspaper editor George Prentice from its longtime perch next to the public library's main branch. Prentice edited one of the predecessor newspapers for the one I used to work for, the Courier-Journal. In 1855, in the run-up to an election, he raged against immigrant Catholics in print, calling them the "most pestilent influence of the foreign swarms" loyal to "an inflated Italian despot who keeps people kissing his toes all day." Beginning on election day 1855, at least 22 people were killed in rioting that targeted Irish and German Catholic immigrants. Whatever Prentice's "stylistic contributions" to his craft were, as the plaque next to the statue used to say, the city decided he shouldn't be in a place of honor anymore. So now his statue is in storage.
On Wednesday, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also in Louisville, issued a detailed historical report acknowledging the depth of white supremacy throughout a history that it has been trying to repent of in recent years.
We long knew the founders were slaveholders and that the seminary used to be a bastion of Confederate nostalgia. But this report lays bare the extent of the ideology of white supremacy that ran through the marrow of the school for its first hundred years or so. One early 20th century president said: “It is immoral and wrong to demand that negro civilization should be placed on par with white." That was E.Y. Mullins, elsewhere a champion of free conscience, sounding a lot like the contradictory Thomas Jefferson. And he was far from alone at the seminary.
All of this was in the archives, but the current president lamented a "sinful absence of historical curiosity." In some ways the seminary had skated on its reputation for having hosted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. despite internal denominational opposition, and for paying the short-term price of withheld donations. ("Money well spent," said one of those who invited King.) But as elsewhere in the South (and North), integration there was late and slow.
A couple thoughts:
Back when there was a raging controversy in the seminary and Southern Baptist Convention between moderates and conservatives, each side claimed different early seminary leaders as historical precedents, if not patron saints. Names like Boyce, Broadus, Whitsitt and Mullins were tossed about in the debate. What this report shows is that all of them were implicated. Pick your hero, pick your poison.
Also, if you go through the archives of almost any historically white religious institution, you'll find similar skeletons.
Several years ago in Kentucky, in fact, I did an informal survey of archives and historians to see if I could identify examples of any white-led religious institutions in the state with a clear historical conscience.
None of the big ones that I could find.
The Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists all split over slavery, with the southern branches supporting it. Segregation reigned in their churches long afterward.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was one of the first denominations to issue a formal apology for historical racism. At that denomination's Cane Ridge shrine in rural Kentucky, the epicenter of the Second Great Awakening, I attended the dedication of a small cemetery marker that honored the previously unrecognized burial of a slave there. A healing if belated gesture; the ceremony drew the descendants of slave and slaveholder.
As for Roman Catholics: Local religious orders of women researched their antebellum histories and dedicated monuments in belated honor of their slaves.
Two religious groups had relatively clean consciences.
One consisted of the Shakers -- members of a radical, millennial sect with two settlements in Kentucky. They insisted on freeing the slaves that came into their community. But even they reluctantly paid slave owners for the much-needed labor of their slaves to help the group expand its properties.
Still, it's worth noting that it took a countercultural, egalitarian bunch, one that others deemed to be a heretical cult, to get some distance from society's metastasized evil. (The Shakers also don't exist in Kentucky or almost anywhere else anymore, an understandable result of their commitment to celibacy.)
The other group is the small band of abolitionists who founded Berea College in eastern Kentucky just before the outbreak of Civil War. They were driven out pretty quickly but returned after the war to run a racially integrated school for decades until a Jim Crow act known as the Day Law forced its segregation. It integrated again when it could.
Lots of institutions could only wish for such principled legacies. It's not erasing history, as some claim, to re-evaluate it and make new decisions about those whom we honor.