At a time when America is reckoning with much of its racist past, a historian says museums show that many historical figures were flawed people.
McLean County Museum of History Executive Director Greg Koos said Abraham Lincoln and former Gov. Joseph Fifer of Bloomington are just two examples of leaders whose lives and actions must be put in context.
“We need to recognize the full scale of the period in which people lived and as we learn about Lincoln’s racism and as we learn about Gov. Fifer quoting Lincoln’s racism, perhaps with some glee, that gives us context to understand those periods of time.”
Koos suggested while Lincoln said things about Blacks we'd consider offensive today, it shouldn’t define how we view him today. He said "the Great Emancipator" also showed how reflective reading can help someone evolve in their understanding of humanity -- an understanding that led him to bring an end to slavery.
“I’d like to look at Lincoln as someone who had the ability to learn throughout his entire life, as a person who never really closed his mind to new ideas and to new understandings of what it means to be a human being,” Koos said.
Koos noted that John McLean, the man for whom McLean County is named, became Illinois' first U.S. senator because he was pro-slavery.
Koos said racial injustice is a story that museums should tell. Shortly before the pandemic forced the McLean County Museum of History to close, it opened an exhibit entitled, “A Community in Conflict.” He said about one-third of the exhibit is devoted to the county’s history of racial injustice.
He added Central Illinois made great racial progress after the Civil War, but some early 20th century leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson, derailed that effort. Wilson's racist views are under scrutiny with Princeton University, where he served as president before being elected to the White House, deciding in the past week to remove his name from the school's public policy and residential college.
The museum also has produced a resource guide for Black history in McLean County. It includes the WGLT McHistory podcast.
Koos said it's up to legislators to determine whether statues of Christopher Columbus should stand, but telling the story of his exploration of America requires more explanation than a statue can convey.
“He was there for the profit of the king of Spain and exploitation of minerals, exploitation of human beings was part of their profit schemes,” Koos said. “We need to know that about Columbus and perhaps the recognition of that history can be made part of any kind of awareness of Columbus.”
Koos said there's some merit to changing Columbus Day to “Indigenous People's Day,” but he said Confederate monuments don't belong in any public space.
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