Chicago may not have statues of Confederate generals, but the city is full of memorials to slaveholders, colonizers and segregationists.
Last summer, protestors who tried to topple a Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park clashed with police. Activists reject the label of Columbus as a “discoverer” of America and point to his violent treatment of Indigenous people. Meanwhile, for some Italian Americans, Columbus is a beacon. Mayor Lori Lightfoot had some Columbus statues moved, but now the city begins its own racial reckoning with public art it owns.
The Chicago Monuments Project is grappling with the hard history evoked by dozens of monuments in the city and tasked with figuring out new ways to develop future public art. The project’s advisory committee has identified 41 monuments out of a municipal catalogue of 500.
“They all sort of fall into these general categories of promoting narratives of white supremacy, memorializing individuals with connections to historical acts, racist acts such as slavery and genocide, presenting one-sided oversimplified views of history,” said Jennifer Scott, a public historian and co-chair of the advisory committee.
Most of the monuments identified were created between 1893 and the late 1930s, which coincides with the World’s Columbian Exposition. Artists came to Chicago to design these pieces, which would help explain an exalted image of Columbus in the late 19th century.
“In this attempt to align itself with great European empires, past and present, the World’s Columbian Exposition set the terms for monuments for the next 50 years. Funded almost entirely by the wealthy, many of Chicago’s monuments were based on mythologies of the City’s founding that posed white explorers, missionaries, armed forces, and settlers against the indigenous tribes and nations of the region. These patrons were also responsible for idealized representations of American statesmen and military heroes,” according to the monuments project website.
Some names on the list may seem surprising, such as President Abraham Lincoln — because he led the country through the Civil War, which brought about the end of slavery. But that legacy also coincides with Lincoln’s historical role as an escalator of Indian removal. Statues of Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley are also on the list because of their treatment of Native Americans.
The committee isn’t deciding what stays up or what comes down. For now, public engagement is at the center of the group’s work. Thursday is the first public webinar on the monuments. The committee is requesting ideas for reimagining monuments from artists and community groups. It also seeks proposals from community partners to host and facilitate conversations about the city’s monuments.
WBEZ talked to five members of the advisory committee.
John Low, associate professor at The Ohio State University, member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, director of the Newark Earthworks Center
There’s a fascination … about American Indians that it seems like the city of Chicago’s residents have had ever since our removal in the 1830s. Once we were gone, forced out, there’s been a nostalgia about Indians and the Indian things. But the subtext was always about the advancement of civilization and the conquest of Western ideals and Anglo-Saxon ways of living. So, oftentimes those are the messages they represent, and those are the people they valorize.
Why are Indians so easily set into bronze or into stone in these works of public art that ossify us? They render us immovable and unchangeable. And the anonymity of it, that we’re homogenous, monolithic, stand-ins. One Indian is like another Indian. They never change. We’re never allowed to change because we’re wrought in iron, in bronze, in stone. We can’t become contemporary.
Jennifer Scott, public historian and co-chair of the advisory committee
There is a bust of Melville Fuller. He was the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice and legislator of the Plessy V. Ferguson doctrine, which essentially facilitated separate but equal as legitimate and helped to facilitate decades of segregation. And in a city like Chicago, I think that warrants more discussion.
I’ve been studying and teaching about contested heritage for the last 20 years, and in different cities and about public memory. And I’ve been really excited to see the energy and the move of this conversation to the mainstream. To see after all these years, for it to become more popular, people are asking questions about history, and how to correct history that’s been distorted, and how to think about it more critically. It’s a dream to see this happen in this way. And there’s so much energy not just in Chicago, but nationally and even globally.
One of the important goals of the project is to reassess existing public art collections, which has never really been done before. And to flag those that need more attention, that might want more conversation. So right now, there’s been no recommendations that have been made and a lot of media coverage has been a little bit misleading in that regard. But so much of this project is becoming informed by public engagement and conversation.
Ernie Wong, landscape architect and urban designer
What’s missing is actually a real account. And this is gonna sound really weird, a real account of how the planning of Chicago evolved over time. Even in transportation, the Dan Ryan Expressway divided this city between Black and white, very quickly, and Chicago, you know, we say, oh, it’s a city of neighborhoods. Well, those neighborhoods have been established through segregation. I think that we need to come to terms with that, and expose that to all the citizens of Chicago.
My firm created this park, Ping Tom Memorial Park, in Chinatown, celebrating a great civic leader who really was so instrumental in helping Chinatown grow. And there have been other monuments within that park that celebrate these Asian Americans that have been so instrumental in Chicago. The issue, historically, has been that Asian Americans have been invisible in our society, in our American society, and it is a shame. You’re seeing this all over the newspapers throughout the entire U.S. about Asian American attacks. People are getting killed, and it’s still not on the front headlines. It’s crazy.
Until Asian Americans find their voice and find their voice in several different ways, not only economically, but also politically — especially politically — will we get that voice in order to become a group that is recognized outside of just being “immigrants?” This is the invisibility of Asians, right now. We still continue to be invisible because everybody thinks, oh, we’re this model minority that has all this education and wealth and everything else. Oh, they’re equal with whites. No, that is not true. We don’t have enough voice out there and we need that.
What concrete changes will there be through this monuments project? I think it’s a way for us to kind of discuss who we are, and how we can accept each other. And at that point, I think what will happen, I hope will happen, is that there’s a lot more education and a lot more context. In terms of adding more things to the city of Chicago, the one thing I am concerned with, is adding too much. I mean, if we’re all planting the flag of who you are in the place that you are at this time. And that’s the danger of it. Because “at this time” will be different 20 to 30 years from now.
Cesáreo Moreno, visual arts director and chief curator at the National Museum of Mexican Art
This is probably more of a perspective of somebody that works in a museum in a collecting institution. It is always good to rotate, and re-curate your permanent collection. We’ve all been to those museums where they haven’t done that. They’re dusty, they’re old fashioned, and you just walk through the space thinking that it’s time for them to rethink what they have out on display. The city of Chicago is sort of in a similar situation. The pieces that are out there throughout the city have been placed for over a century, many of them. They were created during the Gilded Age, when people really had a very different understanding of the city of Chicago, of this country, of history. And their views have sort of grown a bit weary.
[The Mexican American] community is a community of immigrants. And it’s a community of labor. We have come here, our ancestors, our parents, our grandparents have come to the city to work in the factories and help build the city, and now we have transformed some of the neighborhoods into thriving neighborhoods that, you know, draw tourists. When we start talking about contributions to this city, to the landscape, we have to discuss labor, we have to discuss immigration.
Folayemi Wilson, visual artist and also a cofounder of blkHaUS studios
I don’t necessarily think that just getting rid of statues that are painful, are the best solution to that history. I feel like there can be interventions and conversations around it, because the … building of those statues, in the first place, is also part of history. And we shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t wipe that kind of racism or white supremacy away. We need to study it. We need to educate Chicago about it, so that we can have a better understanding of why it causes pain to some communities, and that their history is not represented properly,
I have heard from the Italian American community that Columbus represents pride to them. My question to them is, let’s talk about what that pride is built on. And perhaps there are parts of pride of Columbus that the community can celebrate. But I don’t think we should think of one community being able to celebrate when it causes pain to another when we know that history of how Columbus treated our Native American brothers and sisters. And we, if we’re going to come together, we have to come together.
I would love to see the community come together with artists. And maybe there’s a particular type of ritual that’s invented when something needs to be taken down that people are called all over the city to come to this event. Maybe its history is spoken. Maybe its untruths are spoken; maybe its truth are spoken. And maybe it’s taken down in a particular way that preserves the history of how it got banned in the first place. Somewhere, maybe an institution in the city wants to claim it. Maybe it’s put somewhere for a certain period of time for people to grieve it. I think there’s all different kinds of ways to think about that process. And I think that’s one place that artists can come together with communities to invent new ways to actually take things down. How do we retire them? I think that’s something to seriously think about.