I’m all for removing statues of Confederates who fought to destroy the United States and expand slavery. Lee, Stonewall, Nathan Bedford Forrest — take them all down.
Of course, that’s not a problem that residents of my awesome hometown of Chicago have to deal with. I don’t think there are any statues of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in the Windy City.
But Chicagoans are now worked up about other statues. Specifically, monuments to the exact opposite of Confederate generals.
It turns out that Chicago is now targeting statues of the heroes who defeated those same Confederates to save the Union and destroy slavery.
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Statues
After a series of protests last summer in the city against statues of historical figures, especially Christopher Columbus, in February of this year Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot convened a commission to consider the future of dozens of statues on public land.
The commission’s website, which has been accepting public input for the last few months, says the monuments listed are only a start, implying that dozens of other statues and monuments could soon come under review. Most of the reasons listed to take down some statues, such as promoting white supremacy, denigrating American Indians or inaccuracy, are perfectly sound. No reasonable person can argue with such sensible criteria.
However, there is one criterion that is pretty arguable: “Creating tension between people who see value in these artworks and those who do not.”
This criterion is dangerously broad. What’s to stop the city from taking down the famous Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza that’s become a symbol of Chicago? After all, plenty of people dislike modern art.
While the public feedback is coming in, the monuments review website attempts to reassure the wary, in boldface type: “No decisions have been made about the following monuments.” Then it shows 41 pictures of statues that could soon become history.
I’m not buying it. I’m concerned that the fix may already be in.
Goodbye Columbus — Lincoln and Grant Are Next
I can live with that for some of these statues. For example, though Columbus was a successful explorer, he was a terrible human being whose brief chance to govern one of his discoveries, the island of Hispaniola that currently hosts both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was a nightmare of war, slavery, torture and genocide of indigenous people:
As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic, according to documents discovered by Spanish historians in 2005. In response to native unrest and revolt, Columbus ordered a brutal crackdown in which many natives were killed; in an attempt to deter further rebellion, Columbus ordered their dismembered bodies to be paraded through the streets.
It’s sad for some Italian-Americans who take pride in the Genoese explorer as a fellow native son of Italy. But given what we now know, it’s hard to continue to present Columbus as a straight-up hero for a society committed to racial justice. It’s only fair that the city should consider taking down or at least adding new context through signage or additional monuments to statues of Columbus.
But along with Columbus and frontier Indian fighters who also deserve examination, the 41 statues under threat include some surprising targets: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and other leaders of the NORTH (not the South!) in the Civil War.
That seems to be a bridge too far.
What’s next? Will they change the Illinois license plates from “Land of Lincoln” to “Land of X”?
In the North, it’s A Luxury to Forget the Civil War
If my good friends in the Windy City can’t tell the difference between a proslavery traitor and the person who fought (and, in Lincoln’s case, died) to defeat that traitor and end slavery, then maybe they need to take a trip south of the Mason-Dixon to see what the Civil War was really about, and how it still looms large.
It’s easy for white people in the North to forget about the Civil War. I know, before I moved to the South, I was one of those blissfully ignorant white Chicagoans. As a kid living near Wrigley Field (go Cubbies!) I developed an early habit for travel by exploring the diverse corners of the Greater Chicagoland area by bicycle. I discovered a city covered in names and monuments honoring men who led the Union to victory in the War of the Rebellion.
From Evanston to Hyde Park, I rode my bike through the beautiful trails in the parks along Lake Michigan, Lincoln Park and Grant Park. Sometimes the spirit of discovery would take me out of the park and onto the major traffic arteries of the city, especially Lincoln Avenue and Sheridan Road. Occasionally, I’d ride through the Logan Square neighborhood, named for Union General John Logan, and now a hip destination for artists and young professionals.
But because I was a white kid living in the North, I really didn’t pay much attention to such commemorations. It’s not because I didn’t like history. Many nights at bedtime by the light of a reading lamp I pored over the photos of Nazi villains and Allied heroes in the American Heritage History of World War II.
But it was the Civil War that really put me to sleep.
Back then, I thought that the Civil War must have happened about thousand years ago. What could be more irrelevant to my life in the Midwest in the second half of the 20th century? The slaves were freed, Martin Luther King won, the lunch counters were desegregated (even if the schools really weren’t) and the Old South is now about sweet iced tea. Right?
Then, I ventured south of Mason and Dixon’s line, as so few northerners do except to go to Florida.
Attending college at Washington and Lee University (yes, that Lee) and then returning years later to live for 20 years in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, I learned that in Dixie, Faulkner was right. “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
The Civil War and Reconstruction are very much alive for southerners, Black and white alike. Some white southerners have used their story of the Civil War, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, to oppress Black southerners for the last 150 years. Jim Crow laws are gone, but voter suppression remains.
Here’s a dispatch from Dixie to my post-Lincoln friends up North: unreconstructed white people from Texas to South Carolina have been post-Lincoln since November 1860. These are the same people who silently cheered on John Wilkes Booth. Today, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, League of the South members, Proud Boys, and other straight-up racists will be glad to see Chicago take down Lincoln along with Grant.
Those Confederate “heritage not hate” fans are pretty upset that a bunch of Yankee busybodies made them take down all those statues of Bobby Lee and Jeff Davis. They just hope you’ll leave them alone now. They’d like to keep the statue of Johnny Reb that’s still standing guard in front of their county courthouse, the cheap but intimidating statue that local Black residents have been complaining about since it went up in 1890 or 1910. The Southern Poverty Law Center has also got that statue on their list.
But hey, in Chicago, you’re busy trying to take down the president who put out the Emancipation Proclamation and the general who whipped Robert E. Lee. In Lincoln Park no less!
Back here, down in the sunny South, it’s not all Stars and Bars. A different group of white southerners take inspiration from the history of American victory in the Civil War and the valiant fight to make freedom real during Reconstruction. As they have since then, these white southerners have allied with their Black neighbors in a different vision for a multiracial South, a hopeful “fusion coalition” as described by its primary exponent, Rev. William J. Barber II.
Meanwhile, people up North yawn in our general direction.
They still want Black people down South to be able to vote for Democrats. Isn’t that what Stacey Abrams is supposed to handle? They’re happy to make an online donation to Abrams. But those northern white people really don’t understand why southern Black citizens still have to keep fighting for the vote a century and a half after the Fifteenth Amendment.
Because most northern white people just don’t care about the Civil War. So they don’t understand that for many in the South, the war never ended. And they don’t understand why that matters so much today, not just for the South, but for the whole country.
Lincoln and Grant are Heroes of Racial Justice
All Union leaders, including the sainted Lincoln, have come under fire in recent years, and especially after the Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd last year, for their treatment of Native Americans, the criterion on which the city of Chicago is reconsidering their monuments.
This is not the place to argue the Indian policy of Lincoln and Grant. I’ll just recommend two well documented articles that cover the subject well:
- “Abraham Lincoln Doesn’t Deserve Portland’s Wrath” from the Washington Post, on the execution of Dakota insurgents in Minnesota in 1862
- “Ulysses Grant’s Failed Attempt to Grant Native Americans Citizenship: In a forgotten chapter of history, the president and his Seneca Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ely Parker, fought for Native American rights,” in Smithsonian magazine
For now, Chicago has got its list of 41 more statues, including Lincoln and Grant. Some citizens want to take them down. And that’s just a start.
“It’s definitely something that can be a good conversation starter, but let’s not stop there,” said Chris Brown, a racial justice organizer. “It would be nice to see an Ida B. Wells statue put into place where the Columbus statue was and any with Lincoln needs to come down.”
I love the idea of putting up statues of Black American heroes from the Civil War-era and beyond like Wells, who exposed lynching, or others like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman who led the abolition movement with their bodies and their words. As a Civil War buff, I’d also like to see monuments to Captain Robert Smalls, who organized a daring raid to liberate a Confederate ship from Charleston Harbor, or Martin Delaney, the only Black man to receive the rank of major. And of course U.S. Colored Troops, crucial to the victory in the Civil War that allowed cities like Chicago to become industrial powerhouses.
All honor to the brave Black men and women who helped end slavery and save the Union!
To add new Black heroes, you need to know their history. And to contextualize old white heroes properly, you also need to know their history too. I hope the Chicago commission will take as thoughtful an approach as the citizens’ commission in Charlottesville did when considering the fate of the Lee and Jackson statues in the Virginia college town’s parks.
In the end, no historical figure will appear unblemished to today’s eyes. Some statues need to come down. But other statues deserve to remain up — when you balance out your questions about the figures they represent with the unquestioned good they accomplished.
Taking down such real heroes for freedom and justice as Lincoln and Grant would deprive the public today and in future generations of valuable inspiration to fight for the very values that critics say they support: accurate history, racial equity and building community.
Ask Frederick Douglass about Lincoln and Grant
People today with very little knowledge of history may be inspired by a social media post to get angry. But we would be wise to listen to those who experienced the history that we can only read about. Consider a couple of testimonials from the Civil War era from a very good authority on racial justice.
Here’s what Frederick Douglass said about Lincoln:
Mr. Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great man – too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.
And here’s what Douglass thought of Ulysses S. Grant:
A man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.
If you’re going to argue with Frederick Douglass, you’d better have your facts straight.
And that doesn’t mean a tweet from the Zinn Education Project.
It means information from respected Civil War historians and scholars, both Black and white, like Eric Foner, Ron Chernow, Henry Louis Gates, Annette Gordon-Reed, David Blight, Gary Gallagher and Heather Cox Richardson.
If Chicagoans do their homework, they’ll find that statues of Lincoln and Grant send the right message about racial justice and freedom. They’ll be glad that they’re lucky enough to have so many beautiful depictions of two of America’s most essential leaders in their city parks. And if they can find the money, they may want to put up more statues of Lincoln and Grant.
After all, next year will mark the 200th anniversary of Ulysses Grant’s birth. This adopted son of Illinois, savior of the United States, scourge of slaveocrats, and America’s first civil rights president deserves even more recognition in the great metropolis on Lake Michigan.