Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Stephen Douglas "despicable" but statue should remain


Sherry Williams at the Stephen Douglas Memorial site.
Stephen Douglas Memorial in Bronzeville.
     "I have not a good thing to say about Stephen Douglas," said Sherry Williams, sitting a few steps from his tomb in Bronzeville.
     I've come to this memorial to the Illinois senator who ran for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, at the invitation of Williams, founder and president of the Bronzeville Historical Society. For the past four years the society has occupied the former keeper's cottage at the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Memorial, just east of 35th and Cottage Grove. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency tripled their rent, so the group is forced to move their offices, and their collection of rolling pins and quilts, books and photographs and ledgers from defunct African American funeral homes.
       Though with statues of Robert E. Lee being pulled down, our conversation first turned to Douglas, a slave holder, rendered larger than life — a 10-foot statue elevated on a 46-foot column. She is no fan.
     "It's hard to put Stephen A . Douglas on one peg," she said. "But if I had to choose, I would say he was despicable. He did not take very good care of his plantation. Many of his slaves were ill-fed and died by conditions that could have been remedied."
     Could this edifice be swept away in the passions of the moment?
     "It was a real concern," she said. "I had spoken to several community members who thought, what a great opportunity to have an open conversation about just what that means, about Stephen Douglas being a slave owner. A conversation that's been held here the entire time I've been here. Hence, I'm wearing an 1860s dress."
     A relief to hear that; I had noticed her outfit, her headscarf and calico dress. But "are you wearing a costume?"


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7 comments:

  1. I remember interviews with the caretaker of the Douglas monument many years ago. He lovingly maintained the place all alone for a couple of decades & he was black.
    I'd love to find out his feelings about Douglas, because I don't remember if the interviews went into that.

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    1. Hello Clark St. The gentleman you are speaking of is Mr. Patrick Williams (no relation to Sherry Williams). Mr. Williams died years ago but his family still visits the Douglas Tomb Site regularly. His eldest son came in from California in October. He was outraged by the condition of the site. Mr. Williams began as caretaker at Douglas Tomb Site in 1954. I will pass your compliment to the family.

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  2. FWIW, my own thinking about Douglas is that he was sincere, not evil, but severely misguided. He desperately wanted to avoid civil war and honestly thought the country could survive indefinitely half-slave and half-free. In the end, he lacked the moral clarity and vision of Lincoln. As did most of the rest of humanity.

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    1. I tend to agree with that assessment, Bitter. It's sometimes unfair to judge historical figures because the information we have available is out of context. Lincoln was a better man than Douglas going into the war, but that doesn't mean that Douglas wouldn't have evolved, given the chance. Even Lincoln grew during those years.

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  3. Dear Neil,

    When my wife and I were down in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a few summers ago, we found something billed as an African American history museum. It was in a small house in a black neighborhood and, just as you said about the Bronzeville museum, it was not the Smithsonian. Instead, it was a remarkable collection of personal and community artifacts curated by and old woman who had grown up in the town. She was sitting with another elderly woman who, we found out, was the widow of a U.S. Army officer who was profiled in a video showing on the TV in the corner. We were invited to sit and watch, so we heard the story of the man who went door to door for the Army, explaining to residents that they would lose their homes to eminent domain because the government needed it for a nuclear test site.

    The widow left halfway through the video, saying it was "too hard" for her to see her dead husband that day. My wife and I stayed on and had a wonderful conversation with the curator who shared memories about growing up in a Jim Crow town and going to an all black high school. She said, "We didn't know how bad we had it until we read copies of Jet. We just thought it was normal life."

    So, thanks for sharing your account of this homespun museum and the woman who ran it. I suspect there are hundreds, if not thousands, of these places across the country that preserve the stories that too often go untold.

    Tom

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  4. At first reading I was all set to rant about commercial property real estate managers not knowing navy beans from shinola. It looks like the landlord, The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, is a State of Illinois bureaucracy, probably with decisions being made by political insiders. It's doubtful The Bronzeville Historical Society will be replaced with anything better.

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  5. Neil, Thank you for visiting Bronzeville Historical Society at Stephen A. Douglas Tomb Site. You have raised the visibility of the little known Society located in an Illinois Historic Preservation Agency site. Many calls and emails have flooded in. Several institutions are proposing a remedy for our need to immediately move. I can not thank you enough for featuring our plight in the news. I do hope conversations continue on the complex and complicated histories of Senator Stephen A. Douglas and the question of slavery. You are the best!

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