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Statues of four U.S. presidents among 41 under the microscope by Chicago committee

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is confronting the ‘hard truths of Chicago’s racial history,’ launching a process to review 41 statues and other monuments, including some of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley.

Standing Lincoln, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
According to the Chicago Monuments Project, “many art historians regard Lincoln Park’s ‘Standing Lincoln’ as one of the 19th century’s greatest masterpieces of public art.” But the project also has placed the statue on a list of 40 monuments that are being reviewed.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed Wednesday to confront the “hard truths of Chicago’s racial history” — by launching a public process to review the fate of 41 statues, plaques and works of art, including those of four former U.S. presidents: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley.

Six months ago, Lightfoot ordered two statues of Christopher Columbus “temporarily” removed in the middle of the night after receiving “intelligence that gave us great concern” something bad was about to happen.

At the same time, the mayor argued Chicago statues of Columbus in Grant and Arrigo Parks vandalized repeatedly since the death of George Floyd should not be torn down, but rather used to confront the nation’s history and trigger a “reckoning” that’s long-overdue.

City Hall then launched the Chicago Monuments Project and created an advisory committee to conduct a comprehensive review of more than 500 Chicago statues and monuments, with an eye toward identifying those that were offensive, problematic or not representative of city’s values of equity and justice.

City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park in July 2020.
City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park in July.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Last month, advisory committee co-chair Jennifer Scott, director and chief curator of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, disclosed it had pinpointed 40 statues it deemed problematic.

Reasons for making the list include promoting narratives of white supremacy; presenting an inaccurate or demeaning portrayal of Native Americans; celebrating people with connections to slavery, genocide or racist acts; or “presenting selective, over-simplified, one-sided views of history.”

The project website does not note which criteria might apply to any specific monument or statue.

At the time, Scott did not identify the 41 monuments in question.

On Wednesday, the monuments were identified on a new website — chicagomonuments.org — to launch a public engagement process that will conclude April 1.

Chicagoans were invited to submit feedback and participate in virtual events and one-on-one conversations.

Besides five statutes of Lincoln, others on the list include the General John Logan Monument in Grant Park; the General Philip Henry Sheridan Monument at Belmont and Lake Shore Drive; a statue of Benjamin Franklin in Lincoln Park; the Haymarket Riot Monument/ Police Memorial at 1300 W. Jackson Blvd; the Italo Balbo Monument in Burnham Park; and the Jean Baptiste Beaubien plaque at the Chicago Cultural Center.

One notable monument missing from the list is the controversial statue of Stephen Douglas, which sits atop his tomb in Bronzeville. Last summer, three members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus called for the removal of the statue, which they said was “a tribute to a widely known racist and sexist who even staked his presidential platform on the subjugation of any non-white male in America.”

Lightfoot called the project a “powerful opportunity for us to come together as a city to assess the many monuments and memorials across our neighborhoods and communities — to face our history and what and how we memorialize that history.”

“Given the past year and in particular the past summer that made clear history isn’t past, it is essential that residents are a part of this conversation. This project is about more than a single statue or mural, it’s about channeling our city’s dynamic civic energy to permanently memorialize our shared values, history and heritage as Chicagoans in an open and democratic way,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release.

The public engagement process is aimed at creating a plan to “erect a series of new monuments that equitably acknowledge Chicago’s shared history,” the mayor’s office said.

“The Chicago Monuments Project Advisory Committee has considered hundreds of the city’s sculptures and plaques in this critically important process,” Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly, another advisory committee co-chair, was quoted as saying.

“The city’s public art collection is a defining characteristic of Chicago and it should reflect and respect all Chicagoans. The public’s input will now help us evaluate the collection and to commission new works.”

Last summer, hundreds of protesters surrounded the Columbus statue in Grant Park. They attempted to pull the statue down and battled with Chicago police officers, many of whom were injured.

Protesters surround the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park on Friday, July 17, 2020.
Hundreds of protesters surrounded the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park in July. They tried to pull the statue down and many battled with Chicago police officers.
Alexander Gouletas/For the Sun-Times

At the time, some people didn’t believe the mayor’s stated motives and proclaimed desire to avoid diverting precious police resources toward downtown protests and away from South Side and West Side neighborhoods struggling to contain gang violence.

They have accused Lightfoot of rewarding the rioters. She strongly disagreed.

“This was about public safety. Anyone who saw the videotapes from a previous Friday night, which saw a peaceful protest hijacked by vigilantes who came there to hurt the police but also other people got hurt in the ensuing chaos [knows better]. This was about public safety, pure and simple,” she said at the time.

The skeptics also included Italian-Americans and other proponents of the Columbus statues removed from Grant Park and Arrigo Park.

They didn’t believe the mayor when she said the statues were “temporarily” moved to a safe place to protect them from further damage.

Lightfoot dismissed those skeptics, as well.

“I said it’s temporary,” the mayor said then.

A fence with the U.S. and Italian flags cover the area where a Christopher Columbus statue once stood at Arrigo Park in Little Italy on Oct. 8, 2020.
Last October, a fence with the U.S. and Italian flags covered the area where a Christopher Columbus statue once stood at Arrigo Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file photo

Here’s the list of the 41 statues that are under review:

Contributing: Madeline Kenney