What About the Monuments to America’s OTHER Slaveowners?
UPDATED 6.11, 6:55 MDT
It’s been a bad few days to be a statue of a figure associated with colonialism, slavery, or racism.
In London, witnesses say a statue of slave trader Edward Colston tripped and fell into the river, while one of “noted slaveholder Robert Milligan has been removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands.” Mayor Sadiq Khan has launched a review of “all of London’s statues and street names,” decreeing that those with links to slavery “should be taken down.” Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton, clearly agitated that the UK would honor slavers, said “All statues of racist men who made money from selling a human being should be torn down! Which one is next? I challenge government officials worldwide to make these changes and implement the peaceful removal of these racist symbols.”
It’s been lively on this side of the pond, too. Tuesday night they beheaded Christopher Columbus in Boston. In Richmond a judge has stayed the decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, but it feels like just a matter of time. And good ol’ Jeff Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, came down last night.
Such memorials are also under fire in places like Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Birmingham, Alexandria, and the University of Alabama.
We might expect this trend to accelerate in coming weeks and months, and why not? That a state or municipality should honor those who held humans as property is beyond the pale (and Columbus, while not quite the same contextually, is fairly charged with the “discovery” that initiated the genocide of perhaps 130 million Native Americans).
Where does it stop?
Hard to say, but at some point we have to confront the basic fact that all across our nation we honor – with statues, plaques, school names, company names, holidays, advertisements, parks, plazas, streets, even city names – an assortment of slave owners and slavery enablers who aren’t yet under scrutiny.
You know many of their names: Thomas Jefferson, the Father of the Declaration of Independence; Meriwether Lewis, who helped blaze a trail to the Pacific Northwest; John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; the Father of the Constitution, James Madison; Benjamin Franklin, whose patriotic résumé is as long as the arm of his statue in Philadelphia; and, of course, the Father of Our Country, George Washington.
Who else? Well, there was Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Button Gwinnett, John Hancock, Patrick “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Benjamin Rush, and Edward Rutledge. Honestly, most of the men at Independence Hall during the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional deliberations have blood on their hands. The Southerners (especially the ones from South Carolina) insisted on slavery and the rest (with the exception of a few, like John Adams) caved.
Eventually all the Confederate statues will come down and the military bases named for the rebellion’s leaders will be changed. (Heck, in England the slave trader monuments could all be gone by the of the month.)
At this point, though, eyes are going to start turning toward … those other icons of slavery. People are going to begin asking uncomfortable, but entirely fair questions, like “why do we dismantle monuments to those slave owners but not these?”
Should the nation’s capital be named after a slaveowner? And an entire state, to boot? The capital of Missouri? Lewis and Clark College? The Franklin School at Yale? The John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY?
What black child should have to attend a high school named for a person who owned his or her ancestors?
And what about the pictures on all that currency?
I expect the debate to be lively, and I can’t say how it will turn out. But it’s absolutely going to happen, and maybe sooner than we expect.
Thanks to Bryan Remondini for the idea that sparked this post.
There have been plenty of great leaders, activists, revolutionaries, and thinkers who didn’t own slaves or otherwise support and promote injustice, oppression, and authoritarianism. Thomas Paine is a great example and he named the United States. Let’s put up statues of Paine all over the country.
Both Adamses, too.