Next year, Kentucky will raise a public statue of a woman for the first time in its history. The monument will honor Nettie Depp, a Kentucky educator who died in 1932.
The statue will be unveiled at the Kentucky Capitol on August 21 of 2021, Kentucky’s Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman announced in a speech on August 5. It will be the first monument honoring a woman on state-owned land.
“A failure to observe women in places of honor narrows the vision of our youth and reveals a lack of understanding of American history regarding women’s work, sacrifice and the immeasurable and timeless contribution to society’s advancement,” Coleman said.
The statue is designed by Amanda Matthews, a sculptor from Lexington, Kentucky who spent years lobbying state officials for a monument honoring a woman. In 2015, Matthews founded the nonprofit the Artemis Initiative to campaign for a monument for Depp upon the recommendation of Kentucky’s Commission on Women. Matthews is Depp’s great-great niece (another distant relative of Depp’s is Kentucky-born actor Johnny Depp, who is her a great-great-nephew).
Later in 2015, the Kentucky Human Rights Commission backed Matthews’s campaign with a resolution encouraging the state and local governments to erect statues of women of historical significance and outstanding achievements. A year later, Kentucky’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission started reviewing the Artemis Initiative’s proposal for a statue of Depp, and in 2017 it voted unanimously in favor of the monument.
“My hope is that this sculpture will break through the obstinate norm that has held fast in Kentucky since 1792 and move the needle toward a more inclusive future for women, minorities, and children,” Matthews told Hyperallergic in an email.
Last year, Matthews designed a sculpture of Alice Dunnigan for the Seek Museum in Russellville, Kentucky. Dunnigan was an award-winning Kentucky journalist and the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House. The sculpture was first unveiled at the now obsolete Newseum in Washington, DC. Matthews and her husband Brad Connell have also participated in creating a Tribute Wall for later Senator and civil rights leader John Lewis at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The tribute wall was unveiled last year with Lewis as a guest of honor. Presently, along with her sculpture of Depp, she is completing a monument for investigative journalist Nellie Bly, which will be installed next year at New York City’s Roosevelt Island.
Depp was a Kentucky teacher and principal. In 1913, she became the first woman to be elected as Superintendent of Barren County Schools (a position currently filled by Bo Matthews, Amanda Matthews’s cousin and another great-great-nephew of Depp’s).
During her tenure, Depp built 13 new schoolhouses, repaired 50 others, dug water wells, fought for fair pay for teachers, and promoted stricter enforcement of the Compulsory Education Laws to reduce literacy rates. After finishing her four-year term in 1917 (Depp declined to run for a second term), she went on to become principal at Cave City School until 1923. She spent the last decade of her career as a teacher in Scottsville from 1923 to 1931. Depp was also the first Barren County student to earn a degree in education from what is now Western Kentucky University.
But there are questions to be raised about Depp’s legacy. As superintendent, she was tasked with overseeing 100 segregated schools across the county. There are no historical records that explicitly show her stances about segregation, and Depp does not appear to have advocated for integration. However, she is believed to have worked to improve learning conditions for Black students.
“We need some new [school] houses for colored children, as this population moves from place to place so rapidly that we need to put these [school] houses on wheels to keep up with the yearly moving,” she wrote in a 1915 report.
“In the context of Kentucky in 1915, this should not be understated,” Matthews told Hyperallergic. “Barren County Kentucky was located in solidly Confederate territory only a few decades prior. Depp’s public advocacy on these issues was groundbreaking, and possibly even dangerous.”
“Nettie Depp advocated for improved education for every Kentuckian, regardless of their gender or their race,” Coleman said in her speech on August 5. “She was a true visionary in education reform and she was also a suffragist.”
However, in 1920, Depp helped write an endorsement for President Woodrow Wilson’s re-election for a third term in her capacity as a member of the Resolutions Committee of the Barren County Democratic Party’s local convention. (Despite his attempts, the Democratic Party did not nominate Wilson for re-election.) Wilson supported the resegregation of federal offices and held virulently white supremacist views, according to historians. In 2015, Princeton University removed his name from its School of Public and International Affairs. The university’s trustees said in a statement that they made the decision after weighing “whether it is acceptable for this University’s school of public affairs to bear the name of a racist who segregated the nation’s civil service after it had been integrated for decades.”
“It is honestly a disappointment to me that she publicly endorsed Wilson’s candidacy, but there is evidence that her first and most passionate interest was improved education for all children, and she never wavered on her stance on that,” Matthews said. “My own thoughts are that Wilson’s lifelong dedication to higher education and his late public support in 1918 on behalf of women’s suffrage were things that endeared her to his candidacy.”
Matthews’s sculpture depicts Depp in period clothing, gazing forward while holding a book in her left hand.
Titled Art of the Modern Masters, the sculpted book prominently features Ann Whitney’s sculpture of a reclining African woman, which she made during the Civil War to express her views as a proponent of the abolition of slavery. The sculpture was exhibited in Boston and New York in 1864 and 1865.
“I have no intent or interest to whitewash Depp’s history or that of my ancestors, but I do have an interest in bringing more equity to those who are marginalized,” said Matthews. “Nettie Depp may not have done everything right, but she certainly did some things right.”