As Black Lives Matter protests have filled the streets of cities including Lancaster, discussions about systemic racism have included critical looks at the monuments in public spaces. In Washington, D.C., protesters have attempted to pull down a statue of Andrew Jackson. President Donald Trump tweeted Monday: “Numerous people arrested in D.C. for the disgraceful vandalism, in Lafayette Park, of the magnificent Statue of Andrew Jackson. ... 10 years in prison under the Veteran's Memorial Preservation Act. Beware!” Lancaster County Commissioner Craig Lehman, a Democrat, has called for a bust of Christopher Columbus to be removed from its site on Lenox Lane near the county courthouse. It was vandalized with spray paint last week.
When we were kids, we were taught that Christopher Columbus was an intrepid explorer whose lyrically named ships — the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria — landed on the shores of the New World, thereby “discovering” it.
Little mention was made of the people who already lived on those shores. Or of the fact that Columbus was a brutal tyrant who subjected Indigenous people to violent punishment and enslavement (including sexual slavery).
We learned that President George Washington, the father of our country, had wooden teeth.
The truth, according to the Mount Vernon website, was that he wore dentures not made from wood, but “composed of a variety of materials — including ivory, gold, lead, and human teeth” — possibly from Washington’s own slaves. A ledger shows he paid for the teeth of enslaved people, who had, that website acknowledges, no “real option to refuse his request.”
We also learned that Andrew Jackson was nicknamed “Old Hickory” and was the seventh president of the United States.
We didn’t learn about his zeal to cruelly remove Native Americans from their ancestral lands in Southern states and force them to the Oklahoma territory. Or that he not only signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act, but championed the relocation of the people he demeaned as “savages.” Thousands died of hunger and disease during their forced journey, which we now know as the Trail of Tears.
Now that we’re older and hopefully wiser, we need to put away the childish myths we were taught, so we can have a real discussion about these historical figures.
As a letter writer notes today, this is not about erasing history. It’s about adding layers to the history we think we know.
In a column published in LNP | LancasterOnline in August 2017 — after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia — Gettysburg College historian Michael Birkner wrote that we ought to consider “the full picture when it comes to flawed heroes.”
He noted that a statue of President James Buchanan stands in the Lancaster park named for the 15th president.
Buchanan, he wrote, “directed his oratorical thunderbolts at opponents of slavery, not at slave-owners. Should Buchanan’s statue be pulled down also, or removed to a less conspicuous site? Or might it be better to discuss what he believed and why he believed it, without letting him off the hook for his moral obtuseness on this subject?”
Birkner’s ancestors likely weren’t harmed by Buchanan’s “moral obtuseness.” But the history professor made a solid point when he cautioned against comparing a president who owned slaves, “but enlarged our democratic promise” (Washington, Thomas Jefferson) to a Confederate general who “turned his back on his country at a crucial moment.”
The removal of Confederate statues from the halls of Congress and other public spaces seems absolutely right to us. Why should traitors to the Union be honored in bronze and stone?
Such monuments have been derided as “participation trophies,” but they’re even worse than that. As a December 2018 Smithsonian magazine article states, these Confederate memorials “were created and funded by Jim Crow governments to pay homage to a slave-owning society and to serve as blunt assertions of dominance over African-Americans.”
Taking them down doesn’t erase history or heritage. It corrects a monumental mistake: the use of taxpayer money to glorify oppression and seek to intimidate the once-oppressed.
Beyond Confederate monuments, however, the debate gets more complicated.
Birkner framed the question this way: “What do you do when a great historical figure ... failed a moral litmus test amid an overall record of major contributions to American democracy?”
This is a debate best waged without spray paint and sledgehammers. But it cannot be waged without the voices of Black Americans and Native Americans, whose histories were tragically altered by the moral failures of some of this country’s historical figures.
Nuance and context are imperative.
Just because New York City’s American Museum of Natural History is removing a statue of Theodore Roosevelt from outside its entrance doesn’t mean all statues of the 26th president are bound for the scrap heap.
The statue in question is particularly troubling: It depicts Roosevelt on a horse, with a Native American man and an African man in a “subordinate” position to the late president, as Michael Cullinane, author of “Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon,” noted this week in The Washington Post.
In Cullinane’s view, this statue “suggests a useful standard as we move forward: If we honor complex figures, we should make sure we do so in ways that emphasize their enduring contributions, not their worst failures.”
Roosevelt “occasionally promoted racial stereotypes that stoked hatred and polarized American politics,” but he “also preached tolerance and encouraged equality” during his presidency, Cullinane wrote.
He also requested that no statues be built of him. “No one would want that statue removed as hastily as TR,” his biographer wrote.
The debate here
As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Mike Andrelczyk reported, a quiet cheer went up as the wooden statue dropped to the ground.
Owner David Stoudt decided that it had to go after learning that Sutter had enslaved and abused Native Americans. Stoudt’s laudable and quick action came not because he sought to erase history, but because he learned of Sutter’s brutality when a Sacramento, California, hospital removed its own statue of Sutter.
This week, as LNP | LancasterOnline’s Alex Geli reports, residents of the School District of Lancaster asked the school board to rename Edward Hand Middle School, and the school board has agreed.
Hand was a Revolutionary War general who owned slaves at Rock Ford, his Lancaster home.
We know some people are wondering what direction this debate will take and how far it will go. But names and symbols are reflections of society. They hold power. This debate is a necessary one. Because history isn’t really history if it doesn’t tell the truth.