By Ralph Davis
July 24, 2013
PRESTONSBURG — The picture of one of Kentucky’s most prominent but least known politicians should come more into focus, following a gift by a Prestonsburg family to the University of Kentucky Libraries.
The family of Jack Latta, whose great grandfather was U.S. Rep. Andrew Jackson May, donated 10 boxes of papers to UK last week. The papers include official correspondence, war maps and other items from the office of the former chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs.
Deirdre Scaggs, associate dean of special collections, said the gift was enormously valuable to history.
“He was such a key figure for his time,” Scaggs said. “I think this will potentially reinvigorate the study of the role he played.”
May’s rise to power is matched only by his fall. Born in Floyd County in 1875, he taught in public schools before attending law school with his twin brother. Afterwards, the two set up practice in Prestonsburg. May served as county attorney and special judge, in addition to occupations in mining, farming and banking, before being elected to Congress in 1930. Known for his stance as a New Deal Democrat, he quickly rose to the post of chairman of Military Affairs during World War II, earning him a prominent stature in Washington.
After the war, however, he was accused of accepting bribes from Murray and Henry Garsson, in exchange for favorable treatment when handing out munitions contracts. The allegations later resulted in May’s defeat in his 1946 bid for re-election, as well as a conviction by a federal jury.
President Harry S Truman granted May a full pardon in 1952. He died seven years later.
“He was such a prominent and interesting figure during World War II, and there is very little information about him in history books or scholarly journals,” said Latta said. “It has always been our families wish that his papers be presented to the University of Kentucky Archives, and be made available to scholars.”
Latta also noted that some of May’s achievements include the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a New Deal project, and he was also one of the authors and strongest supporters of the nation’s first peacetime draft, which made the U.S. military prepared to enter the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“Without that peacetime draft, the U.S. military would not have been able to intercede in Europe and the Pacific for several months or even years,” Latta said. “The lack of that legislation could have drastically affected the outcome of the war.”
Following the wishes expressed in the will of his mother, Ann Latta, Latta presented May’s papers to UK Friday. Scaggs and Ruth Bryan, director of archives, personally drove to Prestonsburg to pick up the items.
“One of the strengths of our collection is our public policy archives,” Scaggs said. “The addition of this collection will provide a great research resource for students at the University of Kentucky, and for scholars around the world.”