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Statue Protest Context Difficult To Create

A statue of Columbus
Tim Shelley
Statues of historical figures, such as Christopher Columbis, with racist, colonialist, or genodical aspects to them are increasingly attracting protest and demands for removal.

A lot of statues in America have become problematic. People want to tear them down because they represent a part of history to be disavowed, or embody once heroic themes that now seem shameful.

A statue of Christopher Columbus in Peoria, another of Sen. Stephen Douglas at the state capitol in Springfield, a native American from the Kickapoo tribe in McLean County that does not represent an accurate understanding of native Americans join similar controversial monuments nationwide.

There are Confederate generals galore people that want to remove, even a bronze of President Teddy Roosevelt atop a horse, or a statue of Abraham Lincoln in New York that has a kneeling black man in front of him looking upward. They all have something that looks to many present-day eyes out of place or objectionable.

Bloomington-Normal human rights activist Ky Ajayi said removing statues of Confederate generals who were traitors to the United States and racist supporters of slavery is an easy call. Other examples are more complex.

"I struggle with it as well. It's a polarizing issue. Where do you draw the line? Thomas Jefferson, for instance. Do we celebrate his prolific writing or scandalize his name for the way he treated Sally Hemmings?" said Ajayi.

He said more nuanced conversation about other statues needs to happen now and nationwide. He said if the teaching of history in schools were not so timid it would be easier.

"We are so afraid of being honest about the genocide against the native Americans. We barely touch on the Trail of Tears. We whitewash the Thanksgiving ceremony. We venerate Columbus. Now these are the ways that you insidiously promote or at least fail to acknowledge some of the racist history that we have," said Ajayi.

Others say the idea of statues is an important one. Guy Fraker is a longtime central Illinois attorney, author, and Abraham Lincoln scholar. Fraker said such monuments are a dramatic and graphic way to honor those who are important in the history of the nation.

"I don't know if I'd tear them down. I don't like destroying anything that is part of history. I haven't resolved what you should do with those," said Fraker.

He said historical figures we now view as problematic deserve context not destruction. Douglas in Springfield, for instance:

"Douglas, was he a good man? No. Was he a bad man? Yes. Was he a racist? Yes. But on the other hand, Douglas was responsible more than any single person for the construction of the railroads which opened the west. So, there was a good side to him, too. And he was the most influential man in our state and probably our nation for a long time," said Fraker.

Fraker cited Asahel Gridley of Bloomington as an outright nasty man. Gridley was an 1800s land speculator, farmer, and developer who was important, but even in his own time was almost universally disliked, said Fraker. Yet, there's a statue of Gridley standing at the McLean County Museum of History.

Some advocates say a plaque next to a controversial statue that offers information to counter a heroic image is enough. Others say putting up another monument nearby that presents a more nuanced interpretation helps.

Ajayi isn't buying it. Sure, a plaque or other accompanying exhibit to a statue can provide context, but Ajayi said there's often little real rethinking done by society and removing statues is a way to mark that rethinking.

"When you have a member of a dominant culture who has committed atrocities or oppressed members of a minority culture, there is no movement to recognize the injustice because the injustice was perpetrated by that culture for the purpose of perpetuating that culture," said Ajayi.

To some extent, debate over what to do with statues of figures parts of modern society view as problematic reflects how historical scholarship advances. During a 2015 speech at Illinois State University, historian Jay Winter noted the first generation of historians considers an event, movement or trend itself, such as the battles of World War I. Historians then turn to associated work, such as wartime society on the home front. Then come the histories of the losers in a conflict. And finally, a transnational look at the history elsewhere that is connected to an event.

Winter, a Yale scholar who has done extensive work on the imagery and significance of monuments and memorials, said there's an opportunity cost to creating memorials in time and money that is specific to a time and place in the early part of that arc.

"Until the 1990s the notion of commemoration had a highly specific and relatively localized character. They frequently were paid for with local funds. So, they became the voice of commemoration of a particular group," said Winter.

Winter said the internet changed everything. It not only allowed people in one place to see a statue in another that an outside audiences might find offensive, it connected like-minded protesters.

"Groups of people in South Africa who got rid of the Cecil Rhodes statue communicate directly with people who don't like a statue of Theodore Roosevelt in New York or of Winston Churchill in London. There is a speed of exchange that has a shared and, in some sense, outraged response," said Winter.

Winter said regardless of racist, colonialist, genocidal, or some other atrocious aspect of statues involving reconsidered historical figures, there is a commonality--war, an an unfailingly masculine celebration of martial tradition.

"As long as that is a dominant domain of public remembrance, then I think this problem is going to exist because I think over time various wars will look different than other ones," said Winter, adding that male and martial culture of statues also neglects large areas of history.

Even monuments to World War II and the greatest generation are male-centric, he said, and those public remembrances tend to ignore women and the civilian population that helped wage that total war.

All of the people consulted for this story said it's hard to tell when a dominant culture will move enough for a Stephen Douglas, Christopher Columbus, or Woodfrow Wilson to be thrown down.

One Peoria artist said it is the job of present-day artists to offer replacements once that moment does arrive.

"I don't have the luxury to do anything else," said African American and sculptor Preston Jackson of Peoria.

Jackson said his youthful experience in the south informs his ongoing body of work. He's now creating a large monument to slaves crossing from Missouri to Illinois as they were pursued in their flight to freedom.

Even his choice of material is an affirmative act against the racism of Confederate statues.

"Right now, I am building these large pieces of bronze. I chose bronze as a weapon, as a reason for statues that spoke against," said Jackson.

Winter said there's no sign that the pace of statue protests worldwide will slow down any time soon.

Listen to acclaimed historian Jay Winter talk with Charlie Schlenker.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.