A Billy Graham statue will replace a statue of a North Carolina white supremacist governor in the U.S. Capitol

Aycock

Charles Aycock

A Billy Graham statue will replace a statue of Charles Aycock, a former North Carolina governor and a white supremacist. Both the state of North Carolina and the House of Representatives are supportive of the change.

Here is a taste of Yonat Shimron’s piece at Religion News Service:

Former North Carolina State Sen. Dan Soucek pushed for the new statue in 2015 while Graham was still living. Soon after Graham’s death, the process kicked into gear.

“From a Christian religious point of view, Billy Graham is an undeniable worldwide icon,” Soucek said. He cited the six decades Graham placed among the top 10 in Gallup Poll’s list of the most admired people.

For years, Graham has been one of North Carolina’s most famous luminaries. There are two state highways named to honor him. One of Charlotte’s biggest tourist attractions is the barn-shaped library documenting his life and ministry that includes his restored childhood home and gravesite.

Graham’s son, Franklin, whose Samaritan’s Purse ministry is also located in North Carolina, said he has seen a rendering of the statue, which features the elder Graham as he looked in the 1960s, preaching and holding a Bible in one hand.

Franklin Graham said the statue is not something his father would have pushed for.

“My father would be very pleased that people thought of him in this way,” he said. “But he would want people to give God the glory and not himself.”

Read the entire piece here.

A George Whitefield statue is coming down at the University of Pennsylvania

Whitefield

George Whitefield was arguably the most popular man in colonial America. His preaching was the catalyst for the colonial-wide evangelical revival that historians call the “First Great Awakening.”

Recently, the University of Pennsylvania decided to remove a Whitefield statue on campus because the evangelist promoted and defended slavery in eighteenth-century Georgia.

Here is a taste of Zoey Weisman’s piece at The Daily Pennsylvanian:

Penn President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli wrote in the University-wide email that, after considering Whitefield’s support for and advancement of slavery in the American colonies, they have decided to take down the statue that stands in front of the Morris and Bodine sections of Ware College House.

“Honoring him with a statue on our campus is inconsistent with our University’s core values, which guide us in becoming an ever more welcoming community that celebrates inclusion and diversity,” the email read. 

Although the email vowed the statue would be removed from campus, it contained no mention of when it would be removed or whether it would be replaced with another figure.

The bronze statue of Whitefield was created by R. Tait Mckenzie in 1919. Whitefield, a prominent evangelical preacher in the mid-18th century who successfully campaigned for slavery’s legislation in the Georgia colony — where the practice had been previously outlawed — owned 50 enslaved persons himself. 

Penn’s announcement to remove the Whitefield statue comes shortly after other Ivy League institutions have made efforts to reconcile their ties with slavery and racism. Last Saturday, Princeton University announced that it will remove the name of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International Affairs and a residential college due to his record of supporting racist practices and segregation as president.

Whitefield’s connection to the University comes from his church meeting house located on 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia, the email read, which Penn founder Benjamin Franklin purchased for the Academy of Philadelphia that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. The email made no mention the lifelong friendship between Whitefield and Franklin, or Whitefield’s ownership of enslaved persons. 

Since the announcement, the University has removed a 2013 Penn Today article called ‘For the Record: George Whitefield’ that described Franklin’s relationship with Whitefield, but failed to mention any of the preacher’s ties to slavery. The article was still accessible earlier this week.

Read the rest here.

You can also read the official University of Pennsylvania statement. It makes an effort to separate Whitefield from the university’s founding in 1740: “Whitefield’s connection to Penn stems from a church meeting house he owned at 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia  which was purchased by Ben Franklin to house the Academy of Philadelphia, a predecessor to the University of Pennsylvania. Given that Whitefield prominently advocated for slavery, there is absolutely no justification for having a statue honoring him at Penn.” (I believe a Wyndham Hotel now sits on the spot where the Whitefield meeting house was located, or at least that is what I tell students and K-12 teachers when I give them tours of colonial Philadelphia).

The Penn statement makes it sound as if Franklin answered a classified ad for a vacant building that just happened to be owned by Whitefield. It ignores the fact that Whitefield and Franklin were close friends, worked together on projects of moral improvement, and even thought about establishing a colony in Ohio. (The history of the Whitefield statue published on the website of the University of Pennsylvania archives is more nuanced about the relationship between the two men).

I am not writing to defend Whitefield or to criticize Penn’s decision to remove the statue.  They can do whatever they want with it. Whitefield will continue to be an important and flawed figure in American history and Penn’s decision will not “erase” history. News of the removal, as historian Peter Choi points out, might also awaken contemporary evangelicals to the fact that one of their heroes helped to contribute to America’s history of systemic racism.

Indeed, Whitefield’s relationship to slavery was morally problematic. Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd, a somewhat sympathetic biographer of Whitefield, refuses to give the “Grand Itinerant” as pass on slavery. Here is a taste of a piece he published in 2015 at The Christian Century:

Here is a man who was the most tireless gospel preacher of his era, and who seemed to care a great deal about orphans and African American converts. But he also became one of colonial America’s staunchest advocates for slavery’s expansion. Are we permitted to admire such a man, in spite of his glaring blind spots? (The question is hardly limited to Whitefield: we might ask the same about slaveowning historical figures from George Washington to Stonewall Jackson.)

I do admire Whitefield because of his passionate commitment to the gospel, but his relationship to slavery represents the greatest ethical problem in his career. It represents an enduring story of many Christians’ devotion to God but frequent inability (or unwillingness) to perceive and act against social injustice. Instead of condemning Whitefield as irredeemable, I would suggest that we let his faults—which we can see more clearly with 300 years of hindsight—caution us instead. Even the most sincere Christians risk being shaped more by fallen society than by the gospel. 

Read the rest here.

As Kidd notes, many important people in colonial and revolutionary America owned slaves. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come immediately to mind. It is also worth noting that the university’s decision to remove the Whitefield statue from campus seems to break with some prominent American historians who have weighed-in on our current monument debate.

For example, Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, has argued that Jefferson statues and monuments should remain in place because the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third United States president made major contributions to American life that went beyond his commitment to the institution of slavery.

Award-winning historian of abolitionism Manisha Sinha recently told NPR:

I think it is important not to go from one extreme to the other. And while it is true that many of the Virginian Founding Fathers – Washington, Jefferson, Madison – all owned slaves, we put up their statues not to commemorate their slave holding but for different reasons. So these statues, I think, need to be contextualized historically. We shouldn’t shy from the fact that many of these men were slave owners, but we should also be able to judge each case individually. The Confederate statues have no redeeming qualities to them, but other statues certainly do.

I don’t know what Gordon-Reed or Sinha would say about the Whitefield statue. (Sinha discusses Whitefield in her book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition). But it is fair to ask whether Whitefield, like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, also made contributions to American life that extend beyond his defense and promotion of slavery.

I am not in the camp of historians who believe that Whitefield had something to do with the American Revolution, but I do think there are many Americans–past and present–who would say that the evangelical message he preached had a spiritual and moral influence on their lives. Christians continue to read Whitefield’s sermons for their devotional value. The evangelical movement he helped to found, though not without its flaws, has been a source of meaning and purpose for many Americans. And the evangelical theology he championed, promoted, and popularized also influenced many future abolitionists.

As Jessica Parr has argued in her book Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivialism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, Whitefield’s legacy is a complicated one:

To slaves owners and slaves alike, Whitefield also represented the duality of Christianity in the lives of slaves. For those who opposed slavery, his preaching about equality in the eyes of God inspired antislavery sentiments. Black abolitionists invoked his preaching. White abolitionists invoked his early criticisms of slavery. And although many a southern planter doubted his sincerity, Whitefield was also a model of proslavery paternalistic slaves’ well-being (spiritually and otherwise) but who saw no contradiction between slave owning and his faith.

What if we thought about the University of Pennsylvania’s Whitefield monument in the same way American historians have been thinking about Confederate monuments? Most American historians today argue that Confederate monuments should be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a celebration of the Lost Cause. In 1931, African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote,

The most terrible thing about War, I am convinced, is its monuments,–the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims. In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to it to explain on its war monument, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.” But that reads with increasing difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter to read on a North Carolina Confederate monument: “Died Fighting for Liberty!”

Most of these monuments were erected between 1900 and 1920 for the purpose of advancing the cause of white supremacy. Read historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage here. Read the American Historical Association here.

They were also erected to celebrate Confederate military officers like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. These men were traders to their country.

So why was the Whitefield statue was erected? It was unveiled on the Penn campus in June 1919. Here is how the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the event:

Fri, Jun 13, 1919 – Page 6 · The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com

A quick search at Newspapers.com reveals that the erection of the monument drew attention throughout the country and beyond. Reports of the event–some more extensive than others–appeared in newspapers in Victoria, BC; Corsicana, TX; Paducha, KY; Annapolis, MD; Harrisburg, PA; Pittston, PA; Wilmington, DE; Tampa Bay, FL; Lexington, NC; Pittsburgh, PA; Chanute, KS; Atlanta, GA; Winfield, KS; Casper, WY; Nashville, TN; Salisbury, NC;  Wausau, WI; Lawrence, KS; and Winston-Salem, NC. An article in the Harrisburg Telegraph discussed Whitefield’s visit to south central Pennsylvania and his relationship to John Harris, the founder of the city.

Rev. Wallace MacMullen’s speech on the occasion was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 16, 1919. It focused on Whitefield’s evangelical convictions, his relationship with John and Charles Wesley, his powerful preaching in the British transatlantic world, his printed sermons, his family life, and his commitment to education.

As might be expected at such an event, there was no mention of Whitefield’s flaws or his promotion of slavery in Georgia. Unlike the Confederate monuments, the Whitefield statue was not erected in 1919 to celebrate slavery, white supremacy, or racism. It was erected because Whitefield had a connection to the University of Pennsylvania, was a friend of Ben Franklin, had made significant contributions to the religious life of America, and was an advocate of learning.

Of course the Penn administration may view statues differently than historians such as Gordon-Reed or Sinha or Yale historian David Blight. Perhaps they believe that any statue of a slaveholder has no place on their campus. If that is the case, then the removal of Whitefield is consistent with the university’s beliefs.

I am thus assuming, based on the way they handled the Whitefield statue, that Amy Gutmann (President), Wendell Pritchett (Provost), and Craig Carnaroli (Executive Vice President) would also argue for the removal of statues commemorating Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay, Patrick Henry, or John Hancock. They were all slaveholders and many of them were complicit in the preservation of slavery between 1776 and 1789. Of course the university would have no reason to have a statue to any of these figures on campus, but let’s remember that Quaker William Penn also owned slaves. This might get a little closer to home. (For the record, there is no statue of Penn on the University of Pennsylvania campus).

And let’s not forget that Ben Franklin was also a slavemaster. As David Waldstreicher writes in his book Runaway America:

Franklin’s antislavery credentials have been greatly exaggerated…His debt to slavery, and his early persistent engagement with controversies surrounding slaves, have been largely ignored. He profited from the domestic and international slave trade, complained about the ease with which slaves and servants ran off to the British army during the colonial wars of the 1740s and 1750s, and staunchly defended slaveholding rebels during the Revolution. He owned a series of slaves between about 1735 and 1781 and never systemically divested himself of them…He declined to bring the matter of slavery to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when asked to do so by the abolition society that he served as president. There are enough smoking guns, to be sure, to condemn Franklin as a hypocrite, Jefferson-style, if one wishes to do so.

While Franklin relied upon slaves and servants for his success, he also, later in life, became an abolitionist. If the Penn administration ever has to justify the three Franklin statues that currently stand on the campus, I am sure they will appeal to this anti-slavery work. They would probably argue that Poor Richard was a complex person. They might even say that his role in the preservation of American slavery should not be the only thing that defines him and his legacy. Whitefield, however, does not seem to get the benefit of such complex and nuanced thinking.

What about all those Confederate statues in the U.S. Capitol?

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Here is a taste of William Hogeland‘s piece at Boston Review:

Eleven statues of Confederate officers, including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, stand in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. In response to House Democrats’ recent effort to fast-track their removal, Senator Mitch McConnell and other rearguard cultural defenders have said that to do so would erase history.

Many Americans are startled to learn that Confederate statues are in the Capitol at all. On Twitter, this surprise has often taken the form of a question: “Why in the hell are there Confederate statues in the Capital?” “Wait—there’s a statue of Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens and nine other confederates in the US Capitol building?” “Good Lord, what are they doing there?”

Good questions. Amid the widespread defacings, topplings, and official removals of statuary representing not only enslavers but also racist leaders of many kinds, the presence there of Confederate monuments—not in former slave states but in the seat of the government that the Confederacy fought—seems bizarre indeed. People who remember, as I do, seeing the statues on childhood visits to the Capitol will be less surprised, but I suspect that even we have thought little about the National Statuary Hall Collection’s contents, or even its existence. A large, oddball batch of mostly old memorials, the collection is centered in the National Statuary Hall, beside the Rotunda, and scattered about in other rooms; many of its subjects are at best obscure. At first glance, the collection might seem, aside from the outrageous presence of the Confederacy, innocuous enough, if a bit antique.

But the stark reality is that the U.S. government’s peculiar relationship to the Civil War made those Confederate statues a defining feature of the whole National Statuary Hall Collection—a fulfillment, even, of what became its purpose. What Confederate figures are doing in the collection is worth knowing, because it bears on larger, even more unsettling political and cultural processes that have marked U.S. public discourse regarding race and racism in the past three centuries.

Read the rest here.

The Tail of George III’s Horse

kinggeorge-480

On July 9, 1776, colonial soldiers pulled down a statue of George III on horseback located at Bowling Green, New York City.  It is a famous story of revolutionary resistance.  Most of the broken statue was sent to Litchfield, Connecticut where the lead was melted into musket balls.

But one part of the statue did not make it to Litchfield.  The blog of the New York Historical Society tells the story of the horse’s tail.  Here is a taste:

After the gold was removed, the broken statue was carted off to Litchfield, CT, where the 4,000 pounds of lead were supposed to be melted down into musket balls for the coming war. In all, over 40,000 balls were made, but some key segments went missing along the way: The head, for instance, was apparently returned to England, where it disappeared from record. As for other pieces, the legend goes that the cart’s drivers stopped in a tavern in Wilton, CT, and local loyalists took the opportunity to spirit some of the segments away—including the horse’s tail.

What happened to the tail after that is not known. Nearly 100 years passed before it and several other pieces were found in a swamp near a Wilton farm in 1871. They were irresistible artifacts of the American Revolution, and in 1878, members of the New-York Historical Society banded together to purchase the fragments for one hundred dollars. They’ve been in our collection ever since, and the horse’s tail is currently on view in our second floor Dexter Gallery.

Read the entire piece here.

Christ of the Ozarks

Christ of the Ozarks

I haven’t visited the 65.6 foot-tall statue near Eureka-Springs, Arkansas, but I learned a lot about it from Ben Railton, the “American Studier.”  Here is a taste of his post:

Near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, at the top of the strikingly named Magnetic Mountain, stands a 65.5 foot-tall statue of Jesus. “Christ of the Ozarks” was erected by retired clergyman and political organizer Gerald L.K. Smith as part of a planned religious theme park on his sprawling estate that he called collectively his “Sacred Projects” (that overall project largely didn’t pan out, although Smith did also build a 4100-seat amphitheater where performances of “The Great Passion Play” are to this day featured almost nightly from May through October each year and have become one of the nation’s most-attended theatrical events). The statue, designed primarily by sculptor Emmet Sullivanand completed in 1966, faces the town of Eureka Springs as a blessing on and thank you to the town for allowing Smith to construct such a giant monument. I haven’t seen confirmation of this, but I have to believe it’s the second largest statue in the U.S. that portrays a single human subject, trailing only Monday’s subject the Statue of Liberty (and of course Jesus Christ was an actual historical figure as well as a symbolic one like Lady Liberty).

When we learn more about the personal and social histories of both Smith and Sullivan, the symbolic American meanings of “Christ of the Ozarks” deepen significantly. Smith initially rose to national prominence working with Huey Long in Louisiana; he quit his ministry in order to help run Long’s Share Our Wealth campaign, and took it over entirely after Long’s 1935 assassination. But while Long focused more overtly on issues of class and poverty, Smith was more dedicated to the cause of white supremacy, and gradually moved more fully into that realm. Those efforts culminated during World War II, in the course of which he founded the anti-Semitic America First Party and ran for President in 1944, denied the Holocaust, lobbied for the release of the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, and generally became one of America’s most extreme white supremacist voices. I don’t mean to suggest that white supremacy and Evangelical Christianity are necessarily linked, but they certainly have often been, as we’re seeing again with the strikingly resilient evangelical support for our most overtly white supremacist president. At the very least it’s an important and telling fact that the nation’s largest monument to Christianity was constructed by one of the most extreme white supremacists of at least the last century.

Read the entire post here.

Goodbye Silent Sam

In case you have not heard, last night protesters (apparently students) at the University of North Carolina pulled down a Confederate statue called “Silent Sam.”

A few quick comments:

  1. I support the spirit behind this act.  The statue needed to be removed from its prominent place on campus.
  2. I understand what Silent Sam stands for, and I oppose it, but I was bothered by the hate and rage I witnessed during this video.
  3. The UNC History Department has made an earlier statement about the monument.  The department proposed removing the monument from its prominent position on campus and moving it to an “appropriate place” where it could “become a useful historical artifact with which to teach the history of the university and its still incomplete mission to be ‘the People’s University.'”  I wish the UNC administration would have acted sooner on the UNC History Department’s recommendation.

A Baptist Church Removes Jesus Statue Because It’s Too Catholic

Baptist JesusThe Red Bank Baptist Church in Lexington, South Carolina is removing a statue of Jesus because it is “too Catholic in nature.”

Here is a taste of Mary Rezac’s article at Catholic News Agency:

The white, hand-carved statue in question shows Christ with his outstretched and stepping out of the wall, while the reliefs depict images from Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Red Bank Baptist Church leaders sent a letter to the artist, Bert Baker Jr., earlier this month, informing him that the congregation had voted to remove the statue because it was being perceived as a Catholic icon and was causing confusion among churchgoers.

“We understand that this is not a Catholic icon, however, people perceive it in these terms. As a result, it is bringing into question the theology and core values of Red Bank Baptist Church,” church leaders Jeff Wright and Mike Dennis said in the letter.

Baker, a former member of the church’s congregation himself, was commissioned to make the statue for Red Bank in 2007.

Read the rest here.

Confederate Monuments Get Their Day in Congress

MHC_Confederate_Statue_Hill

Over at AHA Today, Dane Kennedy reports on a congressional briefing about what to do with Confederate monuments.

Here is a taste:

A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Rayburn House Office Building to hear three leading authorities on the subject—David Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University; Karen Cox, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and Gaines Foster, LSU Foundation Professor of History at Louisiana State University. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, chaired the event….

How, asked a congressional staffer, does one respond to those who argue that the removal of Confederate statues erases history? It isn’t history that the statues’ defenders want to preserve, Blight insisted, but a memory that distorts or denies history. Cox made a similar point, noting that these monuments celebrate a sanitized version of history that obscures the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the “Lost Cause.”

Another person asked, so what should be done with the monuments? Options include placing them in museums, contextualizing them with historical labeling, and collecting them at a single site, such as Stone Mountain. James Grossman pointed out that the Russians adopted the latter strategy with their Fallen Monument Park, where they relocated statues of Soviet leaders. In response to a related question about how public arts programs can alter historical narratives, Grossman recommended monuments that present the Civil War as a war of liberation for blacks. Blight suggested memorials to the black churches that sustained African American communities in the South and “elegiac” monuments that highlight the horrific slaughter of the Civil War. But he also cautioned against any precipitate action, urging deliberation in dealing with Confederate monuments. Foster struck a similar note, pointing out that public opinion on the issue needs to change. Cox was blunter: the removal of these monuments, she stated, will not bring an end to the systemic racism that inspired them.

Read the entire piece here.

Agnostic Monuments and Other Forms of Secular Commemoration

Darrow

As Washington University-St. Louis religion professor Leigh Eric Schmidt points out, religion, patriotism, and lost causes are not the only things people in America commemorate.

Here is a taste of his Aeon piece, “Monuments to Unbelief

Materialising secularism, giving it ritual shape and monumental expression, has picked up again as the ‘new atheists’ – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company – have become bestsellers, and as the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has grown dramatically in the past decade and a half. Defenders of scientific rationality and free enquiry have mounted new festivals such as International Darwin Day on February 12 and International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30 to keep up the battle against superstition. This past summer, the Freedom from Religion Foundation orchestrated the dedication of a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. (His anti-evolution opponent, William Jennings Bryan, had already been memorialised some years earlier with a statue outside the courthouse, but now Bryan’s likeness – thanks once more to Frudakis the sculptor – must share public space again with his infidel adversary.)

Atheists and nonbelievers have also launched new congregational ventures – most prominently, the Sunday Assembly and Oasis – in several cities across the country, and humanist chaplaincies have flowered on a number of college campuses to afford a community for openly secular students. The UK-based philosopher Alain de Botton has crystallised much of this recent ritual creativity in Religion for Atheists (2012), in which he expressly reimagines Comte’s religion of humanity for contemporary nonbelievers. Restaurants and art museums, de Botton suggests, are potential sites for humanistic liturgies of communal solidarity and unbuttoned conviviality. Whether in Sunday gatherings or funeral rites, the new secularists court temple, sacrament and monument much as the old secularists long did.

Perhaps the most successful instance of that courtship has been the Satanic Temple – a group of freethinking activists, led by the pseudonymous Lucien Greaves, which has puckishly deployed an occult statue of Baphomet to challenge a monument devoted to the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol in Oklahoma. Winning its case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2015, the troupe forced state officials into the bind of removing the Decalogue or having it share space with a winged, goat-headed, pagan idol – a topsy-turvy symbol to these ‘Satanists’ of equal liberty, rational enquiry and free expression. Reluctantly, the state’s Republican leadership decided that it was better to take down the Ten Commandments than to make room for such sacrilege. Deprived of a space in Oklahoma’s public square, the statue of Baphomet went instead to Michigan where it has been installed as the showpiece of Detroit’s chapter of the Satanic Temple, the latest US monument to blasphemy, infidelity and strict church-state separation.

Read the entire piece here

Why the Columbus Statues Should Stay

Columbus

I am in complete agreement with this piece by Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra. (And it is not just because I am half Italian).  If we are going to make an argument against Robert E. Lee statues because of the Jim Crow context in which they were erected, then we can make an argument for Columbus statues based on the same principle–the meaning Italian-Americans gave to these statues at the time many of them were erected.  (I also blogged about this here).

A taste of Ruberto and Sciorra’s piece at Process:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants saw the American idolization of Columbus as a way to deflect the onslaught of xenophobic and racial prejudice and violence they encountered, and for which they were relatively unprepared, as new arrivals in the United States. They bought into and contributed to a specific Italian reading of Columbus in relationship to their brutal experiences of bigotry. Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.

The connections between Columbus and Italian Americans developed in great part through the work of Italian immigrant prominenti, ethnic leaders who served as intermediaries between WASP elites and the working poor and who supported an upper-class notion of Italian national identity. These included Angelo Noce, a publisher who spearheaded the first declaration of Columbus Day as a state holiday, in Colorado, in 1907, and Carlo Barsotti, a banker and newspaper editor who solicited funds from primarily working-class immigrants to erect New York City’s Columbus monument in 1892. These leaders, many from northern Italy, “argued for full inclusion as Americans based upon an imagined ‘Italian’ heritage of civilization and whiteness,” as historian Peter G. Vellon reveals. In Columbus, they perceived a tool by which to forge an Italian national identity which did not exist among the vast majority of immigrants from southern Italy whose geopolitical affinities were to their local villages. By perpetuating ideas of a united Italian community based on racial hierarchies and a grand history of an assumed, singular Italian civilization, the prominentiimposed elitist notions of a unified Italian American community that was removed from working-class understandings of history and social formations, and that relied on Italians aligning themselves with a white majority. At the same time, the prominenti devalued and inhibited a whole host of Italian working-class cultural expressions that became more and more associated with ignorance and vulgarity—from undermining the practice of Catholic street feasts to belittling the use of Italian regional dialects.

The quintessential prominente, Generoso Pope, was instrumental in cementing Italian Americans to Columbus. A powerful businessman and influential newspaper owner in New York City, Pope was pro-Fascist. He used his Italian language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano during the 1920s and 1930s as propaganda for the Italian dictator, and he led Columbus Day gatherings at Columbus Circle where audience members made the fascist salute (and anti-fascist Italian Americans protested both vocally and physically). Critical in securing the Italian American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he later lobbied FDR’s administration for an annual national Columbus Day, eventually proclaimed in 1937.

Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.

Read the entire piece here.

Can We Honor Robert E. Lee Apart from the Confederacy?

Lee University

Kevin Levin raises an interesting point.  In a recent talk a member of the audience asked him if it was possible to honor Robert E. Lee with a monument for his work as president of Washington and Lee University.

Here is a taste of Levin’s post at Civil War Memory:

One question in particular caught my attention. A graduate of Washington & Lee University asked if it was possible to commemorate Robert E. Lee today in the form of a monument that focused on his time as president of the college. Imagine Lee walking astride one or two students. Lee is in civilian clothing rather than military uniform and carrying a book. Could one be erected in 2017 on campus and if one were already present would people be justified in asking for its removal or relocation?

In other words, is it possible to commemorate Lee without acknowledging his service to the Confederacy?

I attempted to answer the question by drawing a distinction between before and after Charlottesville, but admitted that I am just not sure. What do you think?

A Metric to Help Us Decide if a Monument Should Stay or Go

Confederate_Monument_-_W_face_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery_-_2011

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and one of our leading public intellectuals, offers this metric:

  1. Was the person’s or cultural artifact’s historical impact exclusively focused on slavery and racism?
  2. Did the person insist on their support of segregation and racism even in the face of vigorous arguments otherwise?
  3. Is the monument an ever-present part of experience?

Read how he develops these points here.  There is much to commend here. But even if we accept the metrics that McWhorter proposes I imagine that there will still be debate over how to parse their phrasing.  For example, what defines an “ever-present part of experience?” What qualifies as “vigorous arguments otherwise?”

Statues of Christopher Columbus and Italian-Americans

Columbus Cirlce

Columbus Circle (Wikimedia Commons)

In case you have not heard, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio is considering removing the statue of Christopher Columbus in the circle that bears his name.  David Marcus of The Weekly Standard explains how that statue got there:

The earliest celebration of Columbus in North America took place in in 1792. A newly formed New York City government called Tammany celebrated the 300th anniversary of his discovery of America. Eight years earlier, the Manhattan college formerly known as Kings College had been renamed, Columbia. This happened before many people who actually were Italian became residents of the world’s first constitutional democracy, and it greatest city. One hundred years later, Italians would begin to pour through Ellis Island like water drained through pasta. By 1900, Italians were becoming a fixture in the United States.

These Italian immigrants weren’t greeted warmly. In the 1890s, a group of Sicilian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. Few Italian Americans today would suggest that they faced greater bigotry than blacks have. But, the lynching happened, and it is a part of our country’s dark history of racial resentment. In the wake of this bigoted violence, Il Progresso, the leading Italian language newspaper of the time in New York City, began a campaign to raise money for a statue of Columbus, as a gift to the city, and a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.

It worked: Small dollar donations led to an image of Columbus towering over the city. Italian immigrants chose Columbus as their avatar for good reasons. Not only was he a great man, who had inaugurated the trade between the New and Old World, he was a founding father of America. Only the Norwegians with Leif Erickson had a similar figure, but he was a tourist, not a man who changed the course of history.

This is interesting.  Many have argued that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments need to be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a way of glorifying the “Lost Cause” and white supremacy.  In other words, we need to understand these monuments in light of the meaning they carried at the time they were erected.  Could a similar argument be made for Columbus statues?

I am half-Italian.  I have spent a lot of time listening to my late grandfather (died a few years ago at the age of 103) talk about discrimination against Italian-Americans. White Americans treated him as a member of another race.  None of my grandfather’s stories about working in the breweries of Newark, New Jersey were as bad as the lynchings that Italians suffered in 1890s New Orleans.  And like Marcus, I do not pretend to believe that the story of Italian-Americans is synonymous with the sufferings faced by African Americans in this country.  That would be bad history.  But Columbus became a symbol of pride for Italian-Americans.  The statue in Columbus Circle, as Marcus points out, was erected “as a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.”

What do you think?  Should Columbus go?

Lonnie Bunch III: Dismantle Confederate Statues, Group Them Together, and Contextualize Them

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583

I just read Robin Pogrebin and Sopan Deb’s New York Times article titled “Trump Aside, Artists and Preservationists Debate the Rush to Topple Statues.” The article quotes Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Here is a taste:

Mark Bradford, the renowned Los Angeles artist, says Confederate statues should not be removed unless they are replaced by educational plaques that explain why they were taken away.

For Robin Kirk, a co-director of Duke University’s Human Rights Center, the rapid expunging of the statues currently underway needs to be “slower and more deliberative.”

And Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, proposes that the dismantled statues be grouped together and contextualized, so people understand what they stood for.

In state after state this week, artists, museum curators, and historic preservationists found themselves grappling with lightning-fast upheaval in a cultural realm — American monuments — where they usually have input and change typically unfolds with care. Many said that even though they fiercely oppose President Trump and his defense of Confederate statues, they saw the removal of the monuments as precipitous and argued that the widening effort to eliminate them could have troubling implications for artistic expression.

“I am loath to erase history,” Mr. Bunch said. “For me it’s less about whether they come down or not, and more about what the debate is stimulating.”

Read the entire article here.

The Octavius Catto Memorial

CattoI first learned about Octavius Catto about ten years ago when we took our daughters to Philadelphia for a short vacation.  During our visit we took full advantage of the city’s “Once Upon a Nation” storytelling benches.  Professional storytellers at each bench–there are fifteen scattered around the Independence Hall area–tell stories about famous Philadelphians.  I don’t know if the program has changed over the years, but when my kids were young they could get a free carousel ride and an ice cream cone in Franklin Square if they visited all fifteen benches.

I vividly remember one of the “Once Upon a Nation” story tellers (I think it was outside the National Constitution Center) telling my girls the story of Catto’s civil rights activism in Civil War-era Philadelphia

I was thus pleased to see that Philadelphia will be erecting a statue near City Hall to commemorate Catto’s contribution to the city’s history.

Over at Philly.Com, writer Jonathan Lai reports on a recent program for teachers on Catto’s life and his contribution to Philadelphia’s African American history.

Here is a taste:

Catto was murdered in 1871, at just 32 years old. He sought to protect fellow African Americans who were trying to exercise their right to vote, which had just been ratified by the states the year before. But his name had been largely missing from the modern discussion of civil rights, organizers have said.

As he has been brought back into popular consciousness — a sculpture is set to be placed next month on the southern apron of City Hall — the School District of Philadelphia, the Catto Memorial Fund, and the National Archives partnered for Thursday’s event, the first in a yearlong series aimed at helping teachers include Catto in their curricula, the educational counterpart to the physical memorial.

The statue is the first of a named African American on public ground in the city. The work, titled Quest for Parity, will feature the 12-foot-tall bronze statue, a stainless-steel ballot box, and five granite pillars symbolizing streetcars.

“The Catto story is the national story. It is part of the story of our Constitution. It is the story of how ordinary citizens work, some every day, to make the Constitution live,” said V. Chapman Smith, an organizer of Thursday’s event who works at the National Archives and who is on the board of the Catto Memorial Fund.

Read the entire article here.

45-Foot High Statue of John Paul II Will Soon Be Unveiled in Poland

Read all about it at The Huffington Post.  Here is a taste:

CZESTOCHOWA, Poland — Workers are putting the finishing touches on a new statue of the late Pope John Paul II that its backer is calling the tallest one of the pontiff in the world.

The 13.8-meter (45.3-foot) white fiberglass figure will tower over the southern Polish city of Czestochowa, home to the predominantly Catholic country’s most important pilgrimage site, the Jasna Gora monastery.

Funded by a private investor and put up on his land, the statue of the Polish-born pontiff shows him smiling and stretching his arms to the world. On Tuesday, workers were joining the pieces together and painting them before the official unveiling of the statue Saturday, to be attended by church and city authorities.