University of Chicago removes two campus tributes to Stephen Douglas

The university has taken down a bronze plaque of Douglas, and a stone from the Old University of Chicago. Both are being moved to the university library’s Special Collections Research Center.

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A bare spot on the wall, marked by the darker mortar, was until recently where a stone from the former Douglas Hall had been displayed on the University of Chicago’s campus.

A bare spot on the wall, marked by the darker mortar, was until recently where a stone from the former Douglas Hall had been displayed on the University of Chicago’s campus.

Jade Yan/Sun-Times

Growing protests over statues and other memorials invoking America’s problematic past have reached the University of Chicago, with the removal of two tributes to Stephen Douglas.

A U.S. senator from Illinois, Douglas is perhaps best known for his debates with Abraham Lincoln in the 1858 Senate race (Douglas won). But campus protests have focused on something else: Douglas owned slaves under his wife’s name and drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which created those two territories while also opening them up to the possibility of slavery.

University President Robert J. Zimmer wrote in an email to students Tuesday that “Douglas does not deserve to be honored on our campus” because “Douglas profited from his wife’s ownership of a Mississippi plantation where Black people were enslaved.”

Now gone from public view are a bronze plaque with an image of Douglas, as well as a stone from now-demolished building that had been part of the first University of Chicago, which Douglas helped found.

According to Zimmer’s statement, both items “are being relocated to the University’s Special Collections Research Center,” part of the university’s library.

This image shows a bronze plaque of Illinois politician Stephen A. Douglas. It features a low-relief bust of Douglas above, and below is an inscription reading “In Honor of Stephen A. Douglas Who In 1855 Generously Contributed to the Founding of the First University Established In Chicago This Tablet Is Erected In June 1901 By The Decennial Class of the University of Chicago”

The plaque, depicting Stephen Douglas, was donated by the class of 1901 in honor of Douglas.

University of Chicago Collections

The plaque, in Hutchinson Commons, features a bas relief of Douglas and an inscription noting that Douglas “generously contributed to the founding of the first university in Chicago,” referring to what is now called the “Old University of Chicago,” established in 1856 and shut down in 1886.

The stone, a donation from the “Old University of Chicago,” was on the wall of the archway between the university’s Classics Building and Wieboldt Hall. It had been part of Douglas Hall, erected in memory of Douglas, at the “Old University.”

The objects were removed last week, according to a university spokesperson.

The stone at left came from long-gone Douglas Hall, which had stood on the campus of the “Old University of Chicago.” On Tuesday, there was just a bare spot on the wall (right) where the stone and plaque had been.

The stone at left came from long-gone Douglas Hall, which had stood on the campus of the “Old University of Chicago.” On Tuesday, there was just a bare spot on the wall (right) where the stone and plaques had been.

University of Chicago Collections (left); Jade Yan/Sun-Times (right)

There have been protests over Douglas’ ties to the school. One group, The Case for Reparations at UChicago Working Group, has argued the university and the “Old University” are one and the same, meaning the current university is, according to the group, founded on money earned from Douglas’ slave plantation because he donated land to establish the “Old University.” The group has demanded compensation from the university, including reparations for descendants of slaves.

Zimmer denied that connection, writing in his email: “Douglas died in 1861 and had no connection to the University of Chicago that was founded in 1890 as a new institution with a distinct mission.”

The Working Group said it had not demanded the removal of the Douglas items: “Instead, community organizations have been demanding a focus on gentrification, policing, education, housing, and health care. Until those harms have been healed the university’s past remains an open wound.”

It remains unclear whether the university plans to remove the other stone from Douglas Hall on its campus, outside Cobb Hall.

The first U. of Chicago, located on the West side of Cottage Grove Avenue between 34th and 35th streets, was opened to students in 1858.

The first University of Chicago, located on the West side of Cottage Grove Avenue between 34th and 35th streets, was opened to students in 1858. It was built on land donated by Stephen A. Douglas, who also became its first president. Financial problems led to its closing in 1886.

Sun-Times file

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