Statues with limitations? Panel to review state monuments with eye to diversity, accuracy: ‘It’s time for us to get history straight’

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Sculpture of Pierre Menard and an unnamed Native American outside the state Capitol in Springfield.
Sculpture of Pierre Menard and an unnamed Native American outside the state Capitol in Springfield last year. | Neal Earley/Chicago Sun-Times file

State House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch announced Wednesday he’s putting together the Statue and Monument Review Task Force to “ensure Illinois’ public art is historically accurate and reflects the diversity of the state.”

Stephen Douglas and another 19th Century slave owner have already been given the boot from their perches overlooking the Illinois State Capitol, and now a task force is charged with looking at other statues on state property to determine “which should go and which should stay.”

State House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch announced Wednesday he’s putting together the Statue and Monument Review Task Force to “ensure Illinois’ public art is historically accurate and reflects the diversity of the state.”

The bipartisan panel will hold public hearings and hear from historians, advocates, organizations and members of the public before recommending which statues should be removed and what potential new statues should be added.

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch calls for a return to civility among lawmakers as delivers remarks at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file
House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch calls for a return to civility among lawmakers as delivers remarks at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.

All monuments and statues on state property will be under review, a Welch spokeswoman said. She said they are compiling a list of the sculptures.

State Rep. Mary Flowers who will lead the task force, said its purpose is “really about education,” namely learning from the past and moving forward, something the South Side Democrat hoped would help the state and its residents “be better because of it.”

“Speaker Welch asked me to take on this issue — looking at various statues and coming back with recommendations as to which should go and which should stay,” she said.

“History matters — there’s been some problems in American history,” she said. “For those statues that represent a person who has done harm, a decision should be made as to whether it should stand or fall … It’s time for us to get history straight as we know it … and erect new statues.”

State Rep. Mary E. Flowers in 2018.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file
State Rep. Mary E. Flowers in 2018.

Flowers went on to say that while the statues may represent historical figures who are now long deceased, “racism and inequality are alive and well today.” She pointed to the continued impact of redlining on communities of color as well as the disparities that exist in accessing health care and quality education.

State Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Chicago, will serve as vice chair. Other Democratic state representatives appointed to the task force include Anthony DeLuca of Chicago Heights, Barbara Hernandez of Aurora, Denyse Stoneback of Skokie, Maurice West of Rockford and Eva Dina Delgado of Chicago.

Four House Republicans will also serve on the task force, a spokeswoman for Welch said. They include Tim Butler and Mike Murphy of Springfield, Norine Hammond of Macomb and Tom Bennett of Gibson City. Butler will serve as the GOP spokesperson on the panel.

Meetings will feature both Flowers and the other members “traveling around the state by way of Zoom” and in-person gatherings.

A push to review — and remove — statues memorializing historical figures now considered racists started last year after the May killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Last July, Democratic state Representatives Kam Buckner, Curtis J. Tarver II and Lamont J. Robinson Jr. sent a letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, calling on him to remove a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of Douglas from atop his tomb on Chicago’s South Side.

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

“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.”

“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,” Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois, is best known for his debates with Abraham Lincoln and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which created “popular sovereignty” — leaving open the question of slavery — in order to build a transcontinental railroad.

Stephen Douglas, left; Abraham Lincoln, right, in Julia Ward Howe’s 1861 portrait.
Sun-Times archives; National Portrait Gallery/Julia Ward Howe/AP photo.
Stephen Douglas, left; Abraham Lincoln, right, in Julia Ward Howe’s 1861 portrait.

He had also owned enslaved people in Mississippi and spouted well-documented racist opinions about African Americans.

The statue at his tomb just east of South 35th Street and Cottage Grove still stands, but another statue of Douglas was removed from the lawn of the Illinois Capitol in September. Also put into storage at the time was one of Pierre Menard — a 19th Century state official who also owned enslaved people.

Statue of Stephen Douglas outside the state Capitol in Springfield last year.
Neal Earley/Chicago Sun-Times file
Statue of Stephen Douglas outside the state Capitol in Springfield last year.

A similar review launched last summer in Chicago to “address the hard truths of Chicago’s racial history.” Two statues of Christopher Columbus had already “temporarily” been removed in the middle of the night last year by Mayor Lori Lightfoot after receiving “intelligence that gave us great concern” that something was about to happen.

The city review put 41 monuments, statues, plaques or works of art, including those of four former U.S. presidents — Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley — under further review. Their fate is still being decided.

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April 14, 2021 at 06:11PM

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