‘Little Giant’ a big racist: Lawmakers call statue of ‘bigot’ Stephen Douglas looking down on Black community ‘indefensible’
State Representatives Kam Buckner, Curtis Tarver and Lamont Robinson Jr., made it clear they are not calling for Douglas’ body to be exhumed from the tomb, just removal of the statue, dubbing it “a tribute to a widely known racist and sexist.”
SPRINGFIELD — The “Little Giant” has towered over the Bronzeville neighborhood for well over a century — and three Chicago Democrats say that’s far too long.
State Representatives Kam Buckner, Curtis J. Tarver II and Lamont J. Robinson Jr. wrote a letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday calling for the governor to remove a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of Stephen Douglas from atop his tomb on Chicago’s South Side.
“There is an edifice dedicated to allowing a bigot even in his grave to look down upon the Black community,” the three South Side lawmakers wrote. “This is indefensible.”
The three members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus made it clear they are not calling for Douglas’ body to be exhumed from the tomb, just removal of the statue, dubbing it “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.”
Buckner, Tarver and Robinson also called on Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to stop promoting Douglas’ tomb near 35th and Cottage Grove as a tourist site.
“Stephen Douglas was a distinguished statesman in Illinois,” they wrote. “There is no doubt about that. He was equally a person who personally benefited from the slavery of Black people in America.”
Known as the “Little Giant” for his 5-foot-4 inch frame and large political influence, Douglas played a major role in the lead up to the Civil War. Historian Graham Peck told the Sun-Times last week Douglas was “probably the most important senator in the history of the country” but also “a leading race-baiter in American history.”
Buckner, whose district includes the statue, called it an “eyesore” for many Black people who live in his district and are offended by Douglas’ position on slavery and race.
“This is about not revering someone who was antithetical to the neighborhood in which this statue now stands,” Buckner told the Sun-Times. “So, folks who would like to have the statue remain, folks who think that, you know, this is an affront to history, I welcome them to take it and put it in their neighborhood.”
The statue sits atop a 96-foot tall granite structure completed in 1881, which includes a large obelisk and a mausoleum at the base where Douglas’ body is entombed. The land was originally owned by Douglas’ estate but was sold to the state of Illinois, when it became known as “Camp Douglas” serving first as training grounds for Union soldiers during the Civil War, then as a prisoner of war camp.
Pritzker and Lightfoot did not respond to requests for comment.
For Douglas’ defenders, removing the statue goes too far.
George Buss, who is president of the Stephen A. Douglas Association, said the statue is a part of the grave site and removing it would be the same as disturbing the dead.
“This was put up as his grave site, and I just can’t think that we can remove part of it and say, OK we haven’t disturbed his final resting place,” Buss said.
Buss is a retired teacher from Freeport in northwestern Illinois who also portrays Douglas’ main political foe — Abraham Lincoln. Buss said if it wasn’t for Douglas, Lincoln would have not have gained the fame that propelled him to the presidency.
Lincoln and Douglas squared off in perhaps the most famous political debates in U.S. history in 1858. Douglas beat Lincoln in that U.S. Senate contest, but lost the presidency to him two years later.
“So, I think the clarion call should be rather than take it down, let us interpret it richly in the context of today, so that the future generations don’t have a mistake,” Buss said.
The letter from Buckner, Tarver and Robinson comes less than a week after House Speaker Mike Madigan called for statues and a portrait of Douglas to be removed from the state Capitol in Springfield. Madigan said he learned of “Stephen Douglas’ disturbing past” a few months ago while reading Sidney Blumenthal’s book All the Powers of Earth.
The push from Madigan and others to remove memorials to Douglas comes in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Madigan said that prompted him to push to make sure “symbols of hate are removed from our everyday lives.”
Douglas’ defenders point to his importance to the state of Illinois and the nation, saying before he died in 1861, the “Little Giant” supported his former rival Lincoln, and the Union cause, at the beginning of the Civil War.
But Buckner, Tarver and Robinson contend the jury is in on Douglas.
“There is also no doubt how Douglas felt about Black individuals, women and any non-white man in America,” they wrote in their letter. “The former presidential nominee of the Democratic Party is quoted as saying: ‘I hold that a Negro is not and never ought to be a citizen of the United States. I hold that this government was made on the white basis, made by the white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever and should be administered by white men and none others.’”