By DeBraun Thomas, Take Back Cheapside
I have long been a student of history. I’ve always been fascinated by the way others have overcome obstacles I’ve never had to face. Learning how things came to be and what can come from experiences of the past has inspired me to continue researching and exploring history. Sometimes, the past can seem much farther away than it actually is and in a way, we can become desensitized to atrocities of the past. When it comes to the continued fight against oppression, our understanding of the present should be placed within the context of historical perspective. I was born on March 3rd 1989. George HW Bush was President of the United States and the country was entering yet another phase in history. I was born 126 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 35 years after the murder of Emmett Till and the decision of Brown v. Board of Education, 24 years after the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 21 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 20 years after the assassination of Fred Hampton and 20 years after Apollo 11. Yes, you read that correctly, I was born only 20 years after the moon landing. I am the great grandson of a slave and I’m only 28 years old.
I moved from Menlo Park, California to Lexington in 2008 to attend the University of Kentucky. As I met more people from the city and my social circles bubbled outside of the university, I started learning about Lexington’s history. While much of Lexington’s landscape has changed, many things considered “tradition” have stayed the same. One of the many places in Lexington that has not changed very much is the space downtown known as Cheapside. Since the inception of the city in 1782, the space has been used as a marketplace. To clear up any misconceptions, the name Cheapside comes from Old English. Ceap in Old English means “to buy” and side means “place,” therefore the name literally means marketplace. Between 1830 and 1865, Cheapside was home to the second largest slave auction site in the country. In 1887, 22 years after the Civil War ended, a statue was erected of John C. Breckinridge, Secretary of War for the Confederacy. In 1911, 46 years after the Civil War ended, there was a statue erected of John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate General. Both of these men defected to the Confederacy and both of them were slave owners who fought to uphold the institution of slavery. Their statues stood at Cheapside with no telling of history of the space as a slave market until 2003, when Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity placed a historical marker to memorialize the marketplace’s past.
After George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin in 2013, a conversation about racial justice began sweeping across the nation. In 2015, this conversation descended to Lexington, causing many to look within their own community. Part of this conversation was around the statues still standing at Cheapside. That year, someone spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the statue of John Hunt Morgan and the historical marker was knocked down and broken. This prompted Mayor Gray to request to the Urban County Arts Review Board (UCARB), a group of appointed individuals who discuss the placement and/or removal of art in public spaces, to give a recommendation on what to do with Cheapside. I attended two public discussions on the issue. The first was a town hall meeting at the Carnegie Center. In the room were members of the Klan and supporters of the Confederacy. The tension was high, but in that moment, I felt that the voices of the oppressed were actually being heard. The second meeting was held at City Hall in front the UCARB. I was the youngest person in the room except for the two little girls of a man who was adamant about keeping the statues for fear of the “erasure of history.”
In July of 2016, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were both killed by police officers. Both murders were captured on video and in both cases each of these men were doing nothing to warrant losing their lives. I was angry and frustrated that, in 2016, these issues were still happening and that I found myself continuing to have to explain and justify the phrase “black lives matter” to individuals lacking in melanin. In death, Castile and Sterling inspired me to channel my anger and frustration into constructive action; the result was Take Back Cheapside, a movement to remove the two confederate statues from Cheapside Park and commemorate Lexington’s black history. I believe that we as people can have the most success fighting oppression by understanding each other’s individual struggles and by standing together. These values are at the heart of Take Back Cheapside.
This blog post was originally scheduled to go online on Monday, August 14th. All of those plans changed after the events in Charlottesville on August 12th. It is a day I will never forget and a day that changed my life. Many different people across the country came out to make statements about what had happened. I was struck with so much grief and I will never forget the name Heather Hyer the same way I will never forget Emmett Till. I was still trying to process all that happened when I got a phone call from someone in City Government who told me they had heard that the mayor of Lexington, Jim Gray, was going to announce plans to move the Confederate statues at Cheapside at the city council meeting that Tuesday. It was a bittersweet moment because it came on the heels of Charlottesville, but I found solace in the fact that we could move forward with this work in a way that had the support of city officials.
Once the mayor’s plan was made public, I immediately started planning for what was to come, well, and then I went and got a burrito (because eating is important). Later that evening Mayor Gray released a video statement on Facebook. All of the conversation up to this point had highlighted the statues and not the space itself. That’s why, after watching the video statement, I was relieved and confident that the mayor was moving forward with his efforts to relocate the statues for the right reason. Towards the end of the video, Mayor Gray said “the statues that stand on our old courthouse lawn today also stand on sacred ground, the Cheapside auction block” he then goes on to say “So let’s think about it, it’s just not right we would continue to honor these Confederate men who fought to preserve slavery on the same ground as men, women, and even children were once sold into a life of slavery. Relocating these statues and explaining them is the right thing to do.”
So, what do these recent events mean for the campaign? Well, we are very close to where we want to be, but still have a long way to go. The conversation about moving confederate monuments was thrust even more into the spotlight and in the same way people used their voices to try to silence us, many others in this city used theirs to join us. On August 17th, after hearing from members of the community for 3 hours, the city council voted unanimously to give the city 30 days to find a new location for the statues. Once they find a new location and confirm it, then the city can send their petition to the Kentucky Military & Heritage Commission. That commission meets in November and if they vote in our favor, the statues will be relocated.
My life has been extremely stressful since August 13th. I have received threats to my life, have needed to stay at other people’s homes, and everywhere I go, I am looking over my shoulder. While it puts a strain on every aspect of my life, it is a burden I’m willing to bear because others, like the 19th century abolitionists and 20th century civil rights leaders, did the same for me. So, that being said, I’d like for you to read the last few paragraphs of what I originally had written for this blog post (before Charlottesville) because the solidarity I wanted for this city was exemplified at the city council work session on August 15th and at the city council meeting on August 17th and has continued to be exhibited by all of the other organizing groups that have come to aide Take Back Cheapside. The room was overflowing with people, so much so that on Thursday, people were lined up outside the government building and were also watching the meeting at other businesses downtown. The police Chief the other day told me that it was the most people he’s seen at a city council meeting in his 30 years on the force. That is not just what democracy looks like, but what solidarity is.
Fred Hampton, a leader of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, embodied solidarity and once said, “you don’t fight fire with fire, you fight fire with water. We’re gonna fight racism not with racism, but we’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.” Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines solidarity as “unity (as of a group or class) that produces or is based on community interests, objectives and standards.” Many of the people who pushed the Civil Rights Movement forward were young people, college students, friends and peers who stood together for something greater than themselves. In the annals of history, they are viewed as larger than life, but in reality, they were just everyday people. Fred Hampton was an ordinary college student who brought a much-needed spark the to the movement for his generation and now is the time we provide the spark for ours.
I am writing about the oppression of people of color on an environmental blog for the very definition of solidarity. The movements for racial justice and environmental protection are deeply connected. Every movement that struggles for justice, from the labor movement to the feminist movement and everything in between, is connected in their resistance of the same oppressive systems and power structures. Only when these movements stand together in solidarity will any of them truly win. I think that a quote from 1971 by Funkadelic speaks to this very ideal: “Freedom is being free of the need to be free.”
Take Back Cheapside is co-hosting a Panel On Solidarity with the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition to further explore how our respective movements for racial justice and environmental protection are connected and can stand together. I hope you’ll join us at the Carnegie Center on September 27 from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. to learn more about Take Back Cheapside and Lexington’s forgotten history of people of color, the work KSEC is doing to build a just and environmentally sustainable Kentucky, the systems of oppression that connect our movements, and why it’s important that our two organizations support one another.
We hope to inspire others to work together in solidarity. Step up and be the change you wish to see in the world so that one day others can have a chance to be successful because you fought for them. We can work towards that day by standing together and by fighting every single day to give All Power To The People.
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