MYSTERY SOLVED: House clerk Ketchings has statue of racist ex-Gov. Bilbo stashed in closet

Published 4:38 pm Wednesday, February 9, 2022

JACKSON — House Clerk Andrew Ketchings, a former representative from Natchez, told Mississippi Today and Associated Press reporters he acted on his own to remove the statue of racist former governor and U.S. senator Theodore Bilbo from public view in the Mississippi State Capitol.

Ketchings has been the House clerk since House Speaker Philip Gunn was elected in 2012, making him the first Republican presiding officer of the chamber since the 1800s, Mississippi Today reports. He also served as a Republican representative of Natchez in the 95th district from 1996 to 2004. The clerk is elected by the House members to oversee the day-to-day operations of the chamber.

Ketchings spoke to reporters Wednesday, answering a question that has been all the buzz at the state Capitol: Where’s Bilbo?

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Bilbo, known for his extreme racist rhetoric and views, had been memorialized with a statue in the Mississippi Capitol since the 1950s. Various Black legislators and others have for many years called for the removal of the Bilbo statue, saying it was inappropriate that such a vocal white supremacist was one of two governors to be memorialized with statues in the Capitol.

“Because of everything he stood for, I think this should have been done years ago,” Ketchings told reporters. “It was way past time to do it.”

He added the Bilbo statue is now locked in a closet behind the elevator on the House side of the Capitol and wrapped in a fire retardant. Ketchings declined to open the room.

Its previous home was in room 113 of the state Capitol, the largest House committee room, where it had been since the early 1980s.

No one would publicly take responsibility for moving the statue last week. Legislative leaders, including Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, said they did not even know the statue was missing, according to Mississippi Today.

“It was purely my decision, 100%,” Ketchings said, adding he did not inform any of the legislative leadership of his plan. Ketchings said he has since told the House leadership he moved the statue. House leadership did not seem inclined to try to restore the statue to public view, he said.

Ketchings said he hired a crew with state funds through the Department of Finance and Administration to move the bronze statue on a weekend in October. He said it cost between $4,000 and $5,000.

The bronze statue stands 5 feet 2 inches tall. People sometimes hung their coats or purses on its outstretched arm.

Ketchings said it is not unusual in his position as House clerk to make decisions over maintenance issues in rooms of the Capitol controlled by the House.

In his capacity as House clerk, he has refurbished the chairs and replaced the carpet in room 113. One reason he did not move the statue earlier is that he could not find a suitable storage place, he said. The statue would not fit through many of the doors in the building.

Bilbo died of throat cancer in 1947 in the midst of efforts by his colleague to not seat him in the U.S. Senate after his most recent election victory.

Soon after his death, a joint resolution adopted by the Mississippi Legislature in 1948 established a commission to memorialize Theodore Gilmore Bilbo who “worked unceasingly and often alone to preserve Southern customs and traditions and in so doing sought to preserve the true American way of life … and particularly his efforts to preserve this state and nation by his successful fight against the enactment of national legislation, which would have destroyed the United State of America, if the same had been enacted.”

The resolution calls for the statue to be placed “in a prominent place on the first floor of the new Capitol building.”

Ketchings said he does not know if the resolution is still binding, but opted to keep the statue on the first floor as the resolution mandated.

On the same day that the statue was moved, a bust of Thomas Bailey, who served as governor in the 1940s, was transported from room 113 back to the state Department of Archives and History, which owns the bust.

There are no other statues in the Capitol other than a bust of Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy in a second-floor Senate committee room. Gandy served in various public offices in the state and is one of the few women in Mississippi elected to statewide office.

All the governors, including Bilbo, have portraits in the Capitol.

For years the statue was displayed prominently in the Capitol rotunda, but according to various accounts in the early 1980s during Capitol renovations then-Gov. William Winter had it moved to room 113.

At the time, room 113 was not used as much as it is today. Multiple House committees meet in the room. In addition, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Republican caucus also meet there.

Bilbo served two terms as governor. After that, he was elected in the 1930s to the U.S. Senate where he fought against anti-lynching laws and advocated for the deportation of Blacks to Africa.

During a filibuster to try to block Senate passage of an anti-lynching bill, Bilbo said, “If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon White Southern men will not tolerate.”