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Douglas statue flap: ‘A lot of catching up to do’

Bronzeville historian wants Douglas statue kept where it is but used to give a broader sense of history.

Sherry Williams, president of the Bronzeville Historical Society, in 2017.
Sherry Williams, president of the Bronzeville Historical Society, in 2017, holding at ledger of slaves owned by Stephen Douglas. She wore a period costume to tell visitors about the site.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Unlike you, I’ve actually been to the Stephen Douglas Tomb at 35th and Cottage Grove. Three years ago, at the invitation of Sherry Williams, president and founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society. The BHS had stashed its collection in the tombkeeper’s house and was being kicked out — by the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency, ironically enough.

I mean, I assume you haven’t been there. Maybe you have, on a school field trip or something. So I apologize. It’s bad practice to make broad statements about groups of people you don’t know. A kind of prejudice, really, no matter who does it.

Where was I? The Douglas Tomb. Not a must-see spot. Not exactly the Bean. As a fan of historic preservation, I was sorry to see the society’s collection, meager though it is, without a home.

Which tips my hand regarding the statue. There’s no question Douglas was a bad guy — Williams called him “despicable.” He not only owned slaves but treated them so badly that other slaveholders complained, which is really saying a lot. Douglas was something worse than a sincere advocate of slavery — he did so cynically, politically, to hoover up votes from displaced Southerners downstate.

So ditch the statue? Honestly, it’s not my call. Whose call is it? J.B. Pritzker’s? Three state reps wrote the governor Tuesday asking that the 9-foot-tall statue be removed from its 96-foot granite pedestal and the site no longer promoted to tourists.

If you’re asking me — OK, you’re not, but let’s pretend — I view the site as a complete historical artifact. The tomb of Douglas. After he died, the neighborhood became a brutal prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate soldiers, plus a few stray traitors like former Chicago Mayor Buckner Morris, held for nine months for conspiring with the Confederacy to free prisoners. (Is his portrait up with the rest of Chicago’s mayors outside Lori Lightfoot’s office? Still waiting to hear. Another problem with purging history of the unworthy: it’s an endless task).

Take the statue down and the site will always be missing something, an empty plinth at the center of an area still bound up in Douglas’ legacy.

The Stephen Douglas Tomb, an Illinois state historic site located at 636 E. 35th St. in the Bronzeville neighborhood, last year.
The Stephen Douglas Tomb, an Illinois state historic site, is at 636 E. 35th St. in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

I suppose you could stick someone else up. State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt wants to replace the Douglas statue in Springfield with a statue of Barack Obama. Hmm ... I wonder if she has discussed her plan with the former president? My hunch is, being tapped to fill the space where Stephen Douglas once stood is not the kind of honor Obama would welcome. We could put up Harriet Tubman instead; she’s not around to complain. But doesn’t that still undercut the honor? To be elevated on the bigot’s pedestal? I wouldn’t want my statue there.

I circled back to Sherry Williams to see if her opinion has changed. It hasn’t. She still wants the statue to stay. What is needed is not removing context, she said, but adding more: tributes to members of the Black community, historical information that 19th century Chicagoans did not understand is also part of our proud heritage.

“There’s a lot of catching up to do,” she said. “There are some parallel narratives that could be explored.”

A ledger of slaves owned by Stephen Douglas.
A ledger of slaves owned by Stephen Douglas. Many of his slaves died of exposure and malnutrition.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The Bronzeville Historical Society collection found refuge at IIT, though fewer come to see it than did when it was at Douglas’ tomb. In the years she worked there, talking to visitors, none minded The Little Giant gazing down upon them.

“All of the residents that visited the tomb site regularly, take a walk, enjoy the flowers, of course revisit the history of the site; none of them ever expressed desire to remove the monument,” she said. “What they expressed was a desire that the state of Illinois have an interpreter there to tell the story differently than on poster boards.”

Three years ago, Williams read from a ledger with the names of the slaves once owned by Douglas. It was a moving and valuable experience, to use the overblown tribute to the slaveholder to tell the story of the slaves.

“There should be a balance when you look at history: the good, the bad and the ugly,” Williams said. “Certainly at those places where notable individuals had their footprint. If they are thinking of investing money in taking it down, they should invest money in putting up meaningful context, to understanding a story that has been one-sided too long.”