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College President: Lincoln Statues Have Home On Central Illinois Campus

AP Photo/Steven Senne, File
In this June 25, 2020, photo, a statue that depicts a freed slave kneeling at President Abraham Lincoln's feet rests on a pedestal in Boston. The statue drew objections amid a national reckoning with racial injustice, and was removed.

Monuments to Honest Abe could no longer have a home in Chicago, but the president of Lincoln College says they're always welcome in central Illinois.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has assembled a committee to review dozens of "controversial" monuments, including several statues of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln College President David Gerlach said if Chicago doesn't want the statues, he'll come collect them himself and bring them back to his campus.

Gerlach acknowledges Lincoln's complicated history with African Americans and Native Americans. Still, he said, the bad doesn't outweigh the good.

“I think Lincoln would have admitted that he was somebody that learned over time,” Gerlach said. “He left a legacy that was profound, but not without controversy.”

For example, Gerlach said, Lincoln pardoned hundreds of Native Amercians set for execution during the Dakota War. However, not all were spared. More than 30 were killed.

The Great Emancipator also has been criticized for his views on slavery. Gerlach said Lincoln favored sending freed slaves back to Africa as a solution. That movement led to the creation of Liberia.

Gerlach said, by today’s standards, that plan sounds backward. But he said at the time, even W.E.B. Du Bois — an American civil rights leader and staunch Lincoln supporter — believed that.

“Historical figures being judged by today's standards — I think it's somewhat unfair,” Gerlach said. “I think you have to hold them against a measuring stick of the day. And certainly, in his day, Lincoln was profoundly progressive.”

Lincoln College has a sizable black student population — more than a quarter of the student body. Gerlach said he doesn’t worry about the message defending Lincoln’s legacy might send to those students. He said they, too, admire the 16th president’s character.

“I have not in my six years heard a single comment or critique of the overall body of what Lincoln accomplished for us. In fact, I sense there is a great amount of pride from our students,” Gerlach said.

“The number one photography spot during commencement is the 6-foot-4 four walking Lincoln statue that sits outside our Lincoln Heritage Museum,” he added. “When the college has had vigils during some of the more tragic events over my tenure, the seated young Lincoln at the front of the campus has been the gathering spot of students finding some sense of solace.”

Gerlach said he embraces having tough conversations and addressing “falsely written history.” But he said taking down Lincoln statues would be a step too far.

“These discussions are very good in my mind. But this ‘cancel culture’ that we seem to be in, canceling people for tweets they made when they were 17 years old — I'm a different president today than I was when I started in 2015,” Gerlach said. “Where is that line? And who decides?”

Gerlach said there should certainly be more effort to uplift the voices of marginalized people, adding that can happen without removing other cultural touchstones.

“I will hold my commitment: I will go with our maintenance crew and I'll take every one of those Lincoln statues and bring them to our campus here in central Illinois” Gerlach said. “I think it's important that people try not to get caught up in knee-jerk reactions.”

“Every one of our presidents, I would argue, has been incredibly flawed,” he added. “In spite of their flaws, our country has grown and has moved forward.”

Gerlach said it’s important to dig into the controversies and the reasons behind decisions to better appreciate the accomplishments of figures like Lincoln.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.