Friday, July 17, 2020

Douglas statue flap: ‘A lot of catching up to do’

Sherry Williams

     Unlike you, I’ve actually been to the Stephen Douglas Tomb at 35th and Cottage Grove. Three years ago, at the invitation of Sherry Williams, president and founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society. The BHS had stashed its collection in the tombkeeper’s house and was being kicked out — by the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency, ironically enough.
     I mean, I assume you haven’t been there. Maybe you have, on a school field trip or something. So I apologize. It’s bad practice to make broad statements about groups of people you don’t know. A kind of prejudice, really, no matter who does it.
     Where was I? The Douglas Tomb. Not a must-see spot. Not exactly the Bean. As a fan of historic preservation, I was sorry to see the society’s collection, meager though it is, without a home.
     Which tips my hand regarding the statue. There’s no question Douglas was a bad guy — Williams called him “despicable.” He not only owned slaves but treated them so badly that other slaveholders complained, which is really saying a lot. Douglas was something worse than a sincere advocate of slavery — he did so cynically, politically, to hoover up votes from displaced Southerners downstate.
     So ditch the statue? Honestly, it’s not my call. Whose call is it? J.B. Pritzker’s? Three state reps wrote the governor Tuesday asking that the 9-foot-tall statue be removed from its 96-foot granite pedestal and the site no longer promoted to tourists.
     If you’re asking me — OK, you’re not, but let’s pretend — I view the site as a complete historical artifact. The tomb of Douglas. After he died, the neighborhood became a brutal prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate soldiers, plus a few stray traitors like former Chicago Mayor Buckner Morris, held for nine months for conspiring with the Confederacy to free prisoners. (Is his portrait up with the rest of Chicago’s mayors outside Lori Lightfoot’s office? Still waiting to hear. Another problem with purging history of the unworthy: it’s an endless task).

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  1. That is a brilliant idea and much better than the Orwellian plan to simply disappear history.
    I always believed that we should leave most (but not all) of the monuments in place but explain and teach the uglier side of history and the times in which the once celebrated lived.
    Washington's and Jefferson's legacy can withstand the historical acvuracy of America's and their own short comings. And the truth is always preferred (by me) to whitewashing or attempts to remove them from history.

  2. I don’t quite get why people equate statuary with history. Clearly no one has ever gotten much of an historical education through statues they’ve viewed. Most are accompanied by very little information. History is learned at school and by independent reading. Statues and memorials are honors bestowed on those who have contributed to society. If one’s misdeeds outweigh one’s contributions, that truth should continue to be included in written history, but the extra honor may not be merited.

    1. Just saw a good line (in, of all places, a comment section on a website) that I think encapsulates what I was trying to say: “ Removing the statue is not erasing the history, it’s eliminating an object that glorifies it.“

  3. Again with the assumptions, NS... Uh, I visited that site *long* before you, my good sir, and not on a school field trip. Though, needless to say, not to the same worthwhile effect.

    "It’s bad practice to make broad statements..." Particularly with regard to your readership, and when it comes to knowing about or having done interesting things in Chicago, I gotta say.

    FWIW, I agree with you and Ms. Williams about the site. I wouldn't create this monument now, but I don't think I'd take it down, either. "What is needed is not removing context, she said, but adding more" Yep.

    Though Coey makes a good point, too, about the purpose of statues and monuments.

  4. Given that Douglas is _buried_ there, it makes sense to leave it up. So many of these statues we're tearing down are located someplace central or at least well-traveled, to receive a community's honor (or to display a community's menace.) That's not what this is.

    Ms. Williams definitely has the right idea. Commemmorate the people who suffered at Douglas's hands. Tell the story of his misdeeds, so perhaps the next time around, we won't repeat them. (A lesson we haven't quite learned today, no?)

  5. I did not know that Douglas owned slaves. I'd always thought of him as smart but ineffectual. He was one of those guys who always believe that they're the smartest ones in the room. He thought that his brains and political skills were enough to avoid war on the slavery issue. Boy was he wrong, as he proved in the debates with Lincoln (although he won the election the debates were for).

    TL;DR: Historically, Douglas was meh. I don't see why he even has statues, and I certainly don't care about them, coming or going.


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