Goodbye, Columbus. Now let democracy, not violence, decide what monuments we keep
The time has come to deliberately and democratically decide which monuments to keep, redefine or throw away.
The sculpted bas-relief panels on the four bridge houses at Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River are among our city’s best examples of public art — and, quiet as kept, probably the most racist.
One panel depicting the Battle of Fort Dearborn shows U.S. Army Ensign George Ronan preparing to plunge his sword into a Potawatomi. A slain Native American lies crumpled at the feet of the soldier. An angel floats above, positioned to indicate that God is on the side of the white settlers and the army protecting them.
It’s right there on the corner of Michigan and Wacker — did you ever notice? — adorning a bridge now named in honor of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Black man who was the city’s first non-native settler.
In the wake of Friday’s early-morning removal of two contested Christopher Columbus statues, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has promised to create a formal process to assess the appropriateness of all the city’s public monuments, memorials and murals.
This needs to happen — and quickly.
Monuments and public imagery associated with racism, slavery or imperialism are being re-assessed around the world as part of the calls for racial and social justice following the senseless killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
Some monuments are being taken down by elected officials. Others have been defaced, pulled down or destroyed by demonstrators.
In one of the latest incidents, a bronze bust of 19th century white supremacist Cecil Rhodes was decapitated a week ago in Cape Town, South Africa. And in Virginia, a life-sized statue of Robert E. Lee and six busts of his fellow confederates were removed from the state capitol building late last week.
“Virginia has a story to tell that extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants,” Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, who ordered the removals, said in a statement.
Lightfoot made the right move in “temporarily” — read permanently — taking down the two Columbus statues, one in Grant Park and the other at Polk and Loomis streets.
The Grant Park Columbus had become a flashpoint as police and protesters clashed and injured each other. It was best to just remove the statue — and reallocate the police assigned to protect it — until the monuments process that Lightfoot has promised unfolds.
Been there before
This is not all new Chicago. Chicago has struggled with this issue before.
In 1889, a 9-foot statue of a uniformed cop was erected near Halsted and Des Plaines streets to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Riot, in which a bomb killed seven police officers.
Haymarket was a pivotal moment in the American labor movement. But the monument honored only the police casualties, not the civilians injured. Nor did it offer a balanced view of the events of that day, a decision that would haunt the work for decades.
In 1927, a streetcar conductor purposely forced his streetcar to jump its tracks and hit the sculpture. The monument was restored and moved to Union Park.
In 1968, demonstrators against the Vietnam War, after fighting with the police, covered the monument — now on a platform overlooking the Kennedy Expressway — with black paint. Then, in both 1969 and 1970, the anti-war Weathermen blew up the statue.
At that point, Mayor Richard J. Daley put the monument under 24-hour police guard.
Today, the monument stands on the grounds of police headquarters. And a more inclusive Haymarket monument, featuring an artistic recreation of the wooden wagon that was used as a speakers platform, has sat — unbothered —on the original Haymarket site since 2004.
Beautiful, flawed works
There is worthy, but tough work ahead if Chicago is serious about reexamining its many statues and monuments. Beautiful, but deeply flawed works will have to be removed or recontextualized. That includes the artwork at the DuSable Bridge.
The four panels were created in 1928 to honor the city’s rebuilding after the Chicago Fire, the Battle of Fort Dearborn, the early settler John Kinzie and the explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet.
The panels devoted to the early settlers and the Chicago Fire could pass muster if designed today. But the Fort Dearborn panel, with its depiction of the Potawatomi, likely wouldn’t. It also gives the historically false impression that the U.S. Army was victorious over the Potawatomi. They weren’t. Ronan himself was killed in the battle.
In the Marquette and Joliet panels, the explorers make their way through the wilderness surrounded by subservient Native Americans.
Time to decide
So what should be done here?
We’re not arguing for removing the panels. But this clearly is an example of where a monuments commission formed by Lightfoot could be helpful, suggesting ways to reinterpret the panels through additional signage or art.
We’d rather not see the mayor yank down more statues in the dark of night in response to protest violence.
But if Chicago is committed to the call sweeping the nation for greater justice and equity, it is time to deliberately and democratically decide which monuments to keep, which to redefine and which to flat-out get rid of.
Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.