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Louisville doesn’t need to reinstall Castleman statue, judge rules

The Castleman Statue
Michael Edgerly
/
LPM
The statue of John Castleman was vandalized many times before its removal.

A Jefferson County judge ruled Monday that Louisville Metro Government does not have to reinstall the statue of John Castleman, a former Confederate major, in the city’s Cherokee Triangle neighborhood. It’s the latest decision in a multi-year legal battle.

Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bryant Wilcox wrote in her decision that putting the statue back would be “futile and a waste of taxpayer dollars,” ruling that Louisville Metro Government does not need to take the statue out of storage.

But the city will have to hold one more round of public hearings before making its decision.

Calls to remove the Castleman statue began in 2017, and it was removed from its plinth in Cherokee Triangle in 2020 by former Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration. The legal battle over the statue’s removal has been ongoing ever since, at one point reaching the state’s highest court.

Castleman was a Confederate major also known for his contribution to the Louisville parks system and later served as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army. The statue was removed amid national racial-justice protests over the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

While the legal case does not revolve around Castleman’s character, its initial removal was called for by activists who said its place in Cherokee Triangle was symbolic of a nostalgia for a racist past.

Carla Wallace, a co-founder of Showing Up for Racial Justice who has long advocated for removing the statue, said she is not interested in debating whether Castleman redeemed himself from his role in the Confederacy.

“For us, this is not about Castleman, the person,” Wallace said. “It's about why these statues all around the country for people who fought in the Confederacy, or represented the Confederacy, went up. And you can't take those statues out of the context of Jim Crow in the South.”

In April, the Kentucky Supreme Court sided with the preservation group Friends of Louisville Public Art, which has been working to reinstall the statue since its removal. The court ruled that the local Landmark Commission improperly removed the statue due to conflicts of interest on the commission, and returned the case to the circuit court.

In oral arguments before Wilcox, the city’s attorney made a new argument that, under the state’s sovereign immunity law, Louisville did not need to go through the commission and could instead make the decision through a “community facilities review” process.

Under the review, city officials will present their plans to permanently remove the statue at a public meeting before the commission. Then, the commission will make a recommendation, but the ultimate decision will rest with the mayor.

James Pritchard, a member of Friends of Louisville Public Art’s executive committee, said the group plans to attend the two public hearings, which are scheduled for Thursday.

“We hope that there's still time to create enough support in the community to offset this disappointing decision of the court,” Pritchard said.

Kevin Trager, press secretary for Mayor Craig Greenberg, said in a statement the administration is pleased with the decision and doesn’t plan to reinstall the statue.

“As we stated previously we have no desire or plans to put the statue back in its previous location. We look forward to resolving this matter as soon as possible,” Trager wrote.

Stephen Porter, the lawyer for Friends of Louisville Public Art, said he does not believe the statue should count as a “community facility” under the law, which defines the term as a building, structure or land.

“If the landmarks and the planning commission think that it is a community facility review, which we do not, then we will ask them to make a recommendation to the mayor that the statue be put back in place,” Porter said.

Porter said the group hasn’t decided whether to appeal or ask the judge to reconsider the case. He also said the group will consider appealing the community review process, depending on the outcome.

This story has been updated.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.