Which Historical Monuments Have Sparked Controversy In Chicago?

From a statue honoring police to a tribute to Confederate prisoners, these monuments have raised debate over how history is represented.

Historic Markers Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Historic Markers Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Which Historical Monuments Have Sparked Controversy In Chicago?

From a statue honoring police to a tribute to Confederate prisoners, these monuments have raised debate over how history is represented.

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Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2018 and is being reshared in light of the temporary removal of two Christopher Columbus statues in Chicago on Friday, July 24.

As Confederate monuments have been removed in cities from Baltimore to Austin, David Stone’s been thinking a lot about all of the statues, monuments, and plaques scattered around Chicago. With people around the country and here in Chicago questioning the meaning of certain monuments, and the history they recount, David says he’s been reminded of the book 1984. “Who controls the present controls the past,” David says. “Who controls the past controls the future.”

Since societal tolerance for problematic monuments is changing, David’s been wondering about the history of Chicago’s memorials. So he asked Curious City: Which Chicago markers and monuments have been controversial? We consulted with historians and experts about which Chicago monuments have sparked public outcry, both for and against them, because of the histories they represent. You can read the stories behind five of them below.

Photo by Steve Skoropad, Courtesy John Graf

Haymarket Police Monument

Location: Chicago Police Academy

Erected: 1889

This monument was commissioned by a group of business and civic leaders to memorialize the police officers involved in the Haymarket Riot, a deadly clash between police and labor organizers pushing for better work conditions in May of 1886. Police officers and civilians were killed when somebody threw a bomb and the police opened fire. The resulting trial led to eight labor organizers being sentenced to death in a trial that was criticized for being fueled by dubious evidence and xenophobia.

To the monument’s funders, the riot demonstrated the crucial role of police in keeping the peace. To others, however, it was a case of the powerful using force to oppress the working class.

The monument stood just down the street from the site of the riot until May of 1927, when a streetcar driver veered off of his track and plowed down the sculpture. While accounts differ as to whether this was an accident or an act of protest, the city, not willing to risk a repeat incident, moved it to a new location and out of the path of rogue streetcars.

But the vandalism continued. On Oct. 6, 1969 — and then again in 1970 — members of the radical leftist group the Weather Underground used dynamite to blow the legs off of the statue. “This is another phase of our revolution to overthrow our racist and fascist society,” said an anonymous caller to the Chicago Tribune who took credit for the explosions. Then-Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered the monument rebuilt both times, and even placed the statue under 24-hour surveillance at taxpayer expense.

In 1976, the statue was moved to the Chicago Police Academy building, where visitors needed a staff escort to view it for several decades. Nicolas Lampert, author of A People’s Art History of the United States, says the placement was a testament to the public’s attitude toward the statue — and also a sign that the city was failing to fully grapple with its past. “It’s part of a larger narrative. It’s about erasing labor history,” he says.

In 2007, the statue was placed outside of the Chicago Police Department Headquarters building, where it can now be seen from the sidewalk.

Courtesy John Graf

Fort Dearborn Massacre monument

Current location: City of Chicago storage

Erected: 1893

Industrialist George Pullman lived near the site of an 1812 battle between the Potawatomi Indians and U.S. troops who were evacuating the area. The battle, which left more than 65 dead, was part of  an ongoing war between Native American tribes, their British allies and the U.S. government for control of Indian Country.

In 1893, Pullman commissioned this sculpture, titled “Fort Dearborn Massacre,” to commemorate the event. The monument depicts Potawotami Black Partridge protecting the wife of an officer from scalping, a scene described in one account of the event. After Pullman’s death, the statue moved from the site of Pullman’s home to the Chicago History Museum, where it lived for decades.

But in the late 1960s, a coalition of Native American activists called the American Indian Movement (AIM) began staging protests against certain portrayals of Native Americans. The activists believed that the Fort Dearborn monument promoted racist stereotypes of Native Americans as savages, and furthered the biased narrative that the event was a “massacre” rather than a battle, explains Ann Keating, a professor of history at North Central College and author of Rising Up from Indian Country.

“The local chapter of AIM starts doing regular protests in the lobby of the Chicago History Museum to have this statue pulled down,” Keating says. Following the protests, the museum donated the monument to the city, who placed it back in its original spot near the the Pullman home for several years.

In the 1990s, the city placed the monument in storage, where it has remained ever since. “You can see in positive light — that it’s off-view because we know more, and we can have a more nuanced picture of [the battle],” says Keating. “It may also be that we just don’t want to confront that story anymore. If it’s not up, we can’t have a conversation about it.”

Courtesy Russ Dodge, Findagrave.com

Confederate Mound Monument

Current location: Oak Woods Cemetery

Erected: 1895

Camp Douglas was a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. As in many Union and Confederate prison camps, the squalid conditions often led to the spread of illness and the death of many prisoners. Confederate veteran John C. Underwood raised money to build a monument to the thousands of prisoners who died at Camp Douglas.

But not everyone was happy about it: Vandals defaced the monument the night before its May 30, 1895 dedication. Soon after, a Florida man with Union sympathies placed a large stone slab yards away to protest the monument. The text on the slab pays tribute not to Confederate veterans who died at Camp Douglas, but rather to Southerners who had opposed the Confederacy during the war.

In 1992, Chicago’s City Council considered designating the monument a Chicago landmark for its historical significance. The proposal was quickly defeated by a group of council members led by Ald. Allan Streeter. “Here is a group of people who looked upon my people as animals, as subhuman,” Streeter, who was African-American, told reporters.

The monument is still there today. Theodore Karamanski, a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, suspects that’s because it’s on private ground far from the city center — and because the tone is less than celebratory. “The soldier’s not standing up there with a sword raised,” he says. “It’s a private soldier with his cap off and his head bowed in mourning.”

Nonetheless, the monument remains controversial: Activists continue to hold public protests there and have called for it to be replaced with a tribute to Ida B. Wells, the journalist and anti-lynching activist whose grave lies in the same cemetery. Other prominent African-Americans are also buried at Oak Woods, including former Mayor Harold Washington.

“We’re all for remembering history,” says Andi Shihadeh, an organizer with Smash White Supremacy Chicago, a group coordinating the protests. “But having a 40-foot monument with a Confederate soldier — that goes way beyond honoring their dead, and really glorifies their cause.”

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Balbo monument

Current location: Burnham Park, between Lakefront Trail and Soldier Field

Erected: 1934

Joggers along the Lakefront Trail today may be taken aback if they look closely at the text engraved on the base of this ancient stone pillar: “Fascist Italy with the sponsorship of Benito Mussolini presents to Chicago a symbol and memorial…”

Mussolini, the Italian dictator who would eventually oppose the United States and the Allies in World War II, gifted the column to the city in honor of Italo Balbo, an Italian military general. Balbo had led a squadron of planes on a transatlantic flight from Italy to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 as a demonstration of Italy’s aeronautical prowess.

“At the time it really sparked a sense of pride in Chicago’s Italian community,” says author and historian Julia Bachrach. That same sense of pride also led the city to christen 7th Avenue “Balbo Drive” shortly after the fair. This took place six years before the outbreak of World War II, and seven years before Italy officially joined with the Axis Powers.

In the years since World War II, there have been repeated calls to do away with these homages. As early as 1946, World War II veterans and their families petitioned the city to rename Balbo Drive. In the fall of 2017, in response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of anti-fascist activists protested next to the monument.

While two aldermen vowed to push the City Council to remove the pillar, Italian heritage groups defended the monument. “Italo Balbo was an outspoken opponent of the Mussolini tilt towards Hitler and was not the enemy many in the Chicago City Council are portraying he was,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, and Lou Rago, president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation, wrote in the Chicago Tribune.

Ald. Sophia King, whose ward includes the monument, initially wanted to take down the statue, but “now wants to take a more nuanced approach, where she is considering a plaque to recognize the history and to acknowledge the negative impact of fascism, which is embodied in the monument,” says a spokesperson.

Photo by Steve Skoropad, Courtesy John Graf

Pedro Albizu Campos statue

Current location: Puerto Rican Cultural Center

Erected: 1993

In 1991, Puerto Rican activists began raising funds to commission a statue of Pedro Albizu Campos. Campos had been a fierce Puerto Rican nationalist, participating in the movement to gain independence from the United States, and was twice arrested for suspected connections to violent attacks on politicians in Puerto Rico and Washington, DC.

To Puerto Ricans in Chicago, Campos remains an icon. “He basically fought to defend the history, the traditions, and the culture of Puerto Rico,” says Billy Ocasio, a former Humboldt Park alderman who supported the statue effort.

Once the sculpture was finished in 1993, a Chicago Park District advisory committee recommended that the district place it in Humboldt Park. Then came a last-minute snag: Daniel Alvarez, the commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Human Services, called the Park District and insisted that Campos was a violent revolutionary. Alvarez, a social worker whose mother was born in Puerto Rico, opposed the use of violence for political means, and said Campos should not be honored with a statue.

The Park District reversed its initial decision and asked the community to come back with a proposal for a different person to commemorate with a statue.

“We fought it,” says Ocasio. “There was a lot of protests, a lot of marches, a lot of meetings.” The activists filed a lawsuit against the Park District, and Ocasio drafted a City Council resolution asking the district to approve the Campos statue.

Despite these efforts, the statue never made it into Humboldt Park. Today it sits in the courtyard of a private property owned by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, where it can be seen from the sidewalk.

While Ocasio would still like to see the statue in a public space, he says the controversy led Puerto Ricans in Chicago to become better organized, which paved the way for community development initiatives and other public art projects later on. “And if it hadn’t been for the statue, that never would have happened.”

More about our questioner

(Courtesy David Stone)

As a history teacher in Chicago Public Schools for 25 years, David Stone spent decades thinking about how Chicago tells its story. He hopes his question leads people to stop and look at the fascinating plaques and monuments around the city.

“A lot of people seem to walk by without paying too much attention,” he says.

David’s favorite historical marker? A window-shaped plaque on Wacker Drive, where the viewer can see how the same spot looked in the 1800s, the 1900s, and today. “It’s like a little time machine right there.”

Jake Smith writes and reports in Chicago. Follow him at jakejsmith.com and on Twitter at @JakeJeromeSmith.