Historians to Illinois lawmakers considering statue removal: Use this as ‘teaching moment’

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MAGGIE PROSSER
Chicago Tribune

Two historians on Wednesday provided their perspectives to an Illinois legislative committee tasked with making a recommendation on the fate of monuments located on state property.

The Statue and Monument Review Task Force convened in Springfield to hear from the pair of Smithsonian historians, who advised the committee on the historical and contextual significance of controversial public statutes scattered throughout the state. The discussion comes after years of public outcry and demands that imagery with ties to slavery be removed from public spaces.

“This isn’t just about politics, it’s about people connecting their own lives and identities to these stories, these myths or these histories,” said Smithsonian curator Aaron Bryant. “This is a lot more complicated — you can’t just legislate this stuff out of people. You have to take a very humanistic approach.”

Bryant, a museum curator at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, also chaired a similar review commission in Baltimore, which voted to remove a handful of Confederate statues. All of Baltimore’s Confederate monuments were removed following the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, according to Bryant.

However, Bryant said a total erasure of these monuments paints an inaccurate portrait of history. He said Illinois needs to “commit to the unvarnished truth.”

“As a result of some of the existing monuments, we don’t see ourselves,” said state Rep. Mary Flowers, D- Chicago, who is chairwoman of the task force. “And if we do see ourselves, it’s not in a light that we would be proud of or our children or grandchildren would be proud of.”

Statues of Christopher Columbus were removed in Chicago, Illinois on Friday morning (July 24), in a bid by the mayor to prevent a repeat of recent clashes between police and protesters.


Bryant also addressed logistical concerns about what would happen to the statues if they were removed. He said Baltimore — one of a few major cities to remove Confederate iconography in droves after widespread racial justice protests in the last decade — kept the statues and held them in storage.

Several representatives backed suggestions to donate the statues to museums to use as an educational tool.

“I think this is a really important teaching moment — that’s what we call it in the museum world,” said Mark Hirsch, a historian with the National Museum of the American Indian, who talked to the committee extensively about bigoted and antiquated portrayals of Native Americans in Illinois’ public spaces.

“It’s a unique time when I think people are open to a dialogue about time-honored verities, about assumptions, about stereotypes. … The committee is in a really unique, you might even think powerful, position to engage the public in that kind of dialogue.”

The task force is in the early stages of its work, and Wednesday’s meeting was one in a handful of discussions the body will hold with relevant parties. Ultimately, the task force is charged with reviewing all monuments on state property before making public recommendations on the removal of any statues or erection of new monuments.

“As we move forward, we want to do it in a responsible way, but also we want to do it in a collaborative way,” said Rep. Tim Butler, R- Springfield. “We want to figure out the right path forward on it.”

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch launched the committee in April, after his predecessor, Michael Madigan, called for the removal of all imagery with ties to slavery from the Illinois Capitol’s grounds.

The creation of the task force came shortly after the city of Chicago launched its Chicago Monuments Project and flagged 41 monuments for public discussion and review, including five statues of Abraham Lincoln.

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Region: Decatur,City: Decatur,Politics,Region: Central

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July 29, 2021 at 08:17AM

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