I’m writing this after reading a recent article in the Princeton Times Leader regarding the Confederate statue in the Court Square.
I am a child of Princeton, and proudly so. I share that pride with Mr. Dique Hollowell, who is quoted in the story. I think of Princeton as my home, my special place, the genesis of all I am. And, to those who know me, including county commissioner Jeff Sims, who I consider a friend, I say, it may just be the time to redecorate Court Square in honor of this special place.
I feel it is time for us all to say what we feel and not hide in the shadows. Princeton and western Kentucky did me well. Took care of me. Taught me the values I now espouse. It is truly a special place. What I say I must say, not to detract from this special place, but because of it.
I moved to Princeton in the summer before my first-grade year, in 1977. I was embraced. I was a pretty sharp kid and a decent athlete, but I wonder had I been black would I have been so well-embraced? I lived in eight different houses in Princeton (one of them was a trailer) from first grade to graduation. The point is, I know the town.
I can tell you that the home where I felt most welcomed by my neighbors was the house on the corner of Green Street and North Plum. I lived there from eighth grade to senior year. This corner is on the very edge of the historically black section of Princeton. It is only a few short blocks away from the old Dotson High School campus, Princeton’s all-black high school, which closed in 1963.
My neighbors were black. Could I go back, I would have embraced my black neighbors more than I did at the time. Still, they were my family, in spite of me being less than the perfect relative. Those neighbors gave me much more than I gave them back then. It was hard for me at that time to fully accept my extended family. I strive for that barrier I felt, whether real or imagined, to be removed for all future generations. I have great appreciation for those neighbors now, for rooting for me on the gridiron and in the classroom, and for being proud I was their neighbor. Today, I owe this to my extended family, to voice my thoughts, for what my thoughts are worth.
I somehow made it to Harvard as an economically disadvantaged kid from Princeton with a West Green Street address. Fellow neighborhood residents Byron Copeland, Dexter Lander and I occupied the outfield for the Tigers baseball team one spring. At the time, Byron and Dexter were the only black players on the team. Collectively, we were called the “Green Street Boys.” It was an honor to be included among them. Had it not been for Dexter, I would not have had a ride to and from practice.
Just a couple of years later, during my first winter at Harvard in 1989-90, I played pickup basketball with Barack Obama in the Harvard Law School’s Hemenway Gym, which was a few hundred yards from my freshman dorm. Barack was a good pick-up teammate. He passed the ball, was willing to feed the post and would have undoubtedly fit in well at the outdoor courts on the Butler High Campus in Princeton where I played growing up. All of my black extended family in Princeton who treated me with love in spite of the fact that I was a different color than them, you know who you are, you prepared me for “pickup” with the future president. Thing is, you often did not pick me last, even when I was the smallest kid on the court, and I owe it to you to speak out as to what I think during this time.
In my humble opinion, the Confederate statue should go. Not to erase history, but to correct it. That statue, frankly, propagates a myth in its current location on the Caldwell County Courthouse lawn.
The fact is that most people who served in the military during the Civil War from Caldwell County likely served for the Union Army. In Kentucky, as a whole, nearly three-fourths of the estimated 170,000 men who served for either side during the Civil War served for the United States of America. As you might expect, in the large slave-owning counties of southwestern Kentucky, the proportion serving for the Confederacy was higher. A few counties on the Tennessee border enlisted more soldiers in the CSA than the USA. However, these counties were the exception.
My own great-great-great grandfather, James Bruce, served for the Union (I was shocked to find this out a few years back when doing some genealogical research). This, in spite of the fact that he owned two slaves at the time of the 1860 census. He named my great-great-grandfather, who was born in 1863 in an area near the border of Caldwell, Lyon and Trigg counties, an area which is now, ironically, known as Confederate, Ulysses Grant Bruce. Ulysses S. Grant had just led the Union Army to decisive victories at both Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland and the Tennessee Rivers a short stone’s throw away from James Bruce’s farm on Dryden Creek (read about it — that is history). I suspect that a vast majority of Kentuckians celebrated those victories at that time, though, perhaps, not so much as to name their newborn child after the victorious Union general.
The better question is not whether the statue should be removed and placed in a more suitable location, such as a cemetery where many brave Confederate soldiers were interred or, perhaps, at the historical location of the Skirmish at Grubbs Crossroads, which occurred in Caldwell County, but, why was it placed in its current location to begin with?
In Kentucky, a state which never succeeded from the Union and where three out of four men who fought in the Civil War fought for the Union, there are approximately 61 monuments honoring those who fought in the Civil War or the “Cause for which they Fought” (as is inscribed on the monument in Princeton). Of those, 54, including the one at the Caldwell County Courthouse, honor those who fought for the Confederacy, two honor men who fought on both sides, and only five honor those who served for the Union. Does that make any sense whatsoever? Does that truly honor the history of Kentucky or its brave men who fought during Civil War?
My view is that it is time to move on, to redecorate. Slavery was a true abomination. In 1860, 26% of all Caldwell County residents were slaves. This was significantly above the state average. These men and women toiled in fields to create wealth for their owners and local merchants at no personal benefit. A war was fought, principally, over the right to keep them enslaved. Kentucky and nearly three-fourths of its men who fought, fought on the side of the righteous. The side over which our nation’s stars and stripes proudly flew.
Is this not the cause that should be honored in our court square not necessarily with a statue, but certainly with our nations’ flag and with the promise of equal justice for all in spite of their race, color, creed or religion? Is it not our true history? Is it not more in keeping with the values of our community? A community I have tried to make proud and who I now call upon to be an example for the entire commonwealth of Kentucky and the United States of America.
Randall Bruce has a law practice in Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee. After graduating from Caldwell County High School in 1989, he received his bachelor’s degree in American history from Harvard College in 1993. He received his law degree from the University of Kentucky in 1996, where he served as associate editor of the Kentucky Law Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.