Kentucky legislature pauses for history at Old State Capitol

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — In the summer of 1861, Kentucky lawmakers convened at what was once the state Capitol in Frankfort to discuss whether they should join the Confederacy in the Civil War.

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But first, something smelled.

The legislature appointed a special committee to investigate a strange smell in the back of the chamber. A few days later, lawmakers returned with a report recommending slaves build a new privy, or outhouse, according to Patrick Lewis, managing editor of scholarly resources and publications for the Kentucky Historical Society.

Kentucky never did join the Confederacy, a decision that was made by a legislature of white men. Tuesday, more than 150 years later, a very different-looking legislature convened at what's now known as the Old State Capitol. Democratic state Rep. Jim Glenn, who is black, was among the lawmakers casting an "aye" vote to approve the day's one piece of business: A resolution commemorating Presidents' Day.

"We got a chance to pass a bill. When this building was built from the beginning until it was closed, we didn't ... participate in that process," Glenn said. "We added to the wealth of Kentucky, we added to the wealth of the United States. We just were not part of it, visually."

Kentucky lawmakers met at the Old State Capitol on Tuesday in a brief session that Republican House Speaker David Osborne said was designed to let lawmakers "pause" amid a busy legislative session.

"I think that every once in a while we need to pause and look at what we have been through, look at where we have gone," Osborne said.

The Old State Capitol was the third home of the Kentucky legislature. When the first building burned down in 1813, the legislature approved construction of a second Capitol, but only if it was "of fireproof construction," according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia. But that building burned down in 1824.

The third Capitol was completed in 1830. Kentucky lawmakers met there to pass a Constitution in 1830 and a new Constitution in 1891 that is still in use today. In 1850, U.S. Sen. Henry Clay spoke to the legislature about the Compromise of 1850, which delayed the start of the Civil War.

"It just sends chills up my spine to know that he spoke in this room," said House Majority Floor Leader John "Bam" Carney.

An Abraham Lincoln impersonator spoke to the House of Representatives, introduced as the 16th President of the United States. The man acting as Lincoln joked he was surprised to get the invitation to speak because Kentucky had not voted for him in the presidential election of 1860.

Today, the Old State Capitol is run by the Kentucky Historical Society, mostly used for tours and special events.

"Even in its future, historical society sees it as a place for public debate, public conversation and empowerment around history," Kentucky Historical Society Executive Director Scott Alvey said. "I think sitting in that building today will give the legislature just a reminder they are still doing historic work."

House Majority Caucus chairwoman Suzanne Miles got into the part, dressing in period dress as she took her seat on the House floor. But she downplayed her role as the first Republican woman in a leadership role in the state House of Representatives.

"I guess I look to the future more than the past," she said.