Statue task force reviewing state monuments

By Sarah Mansur 
Capitol News Illinois

The Illinois State Capitol rotunda is pictured in Springfield. (Capitol News Illinois file photo)

SPRINGFIELD — A state House task force continued its discussion about reevaluating controversial statues and whether new monuments commemorating minorities should be added to the state Capitol grounds.

The hearing Wednesday, May 19 is the second meeting of the bipartisan Statue and Monument Review Task Force, which was formed by Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch last month. The purpose of the task force is to conduct a review of monuments on state property and proposals for new monuments or statues.

Adam Green, an associate history professor at the University of Chicago, was one of four speakers who shared their perspectives on the task force’s charge.

Green said statues, monuments and memorials and the naming practices for buildings, parks, streets and other components of the built environment play a crucial role in defining communities.

“They establish a heritage that gives our shared community a sense of origins, continuity and endurance, they signal which individuals and what actions or contributions are worthy of honoring or even emulating,” Green said. “They also identify implicitly, and sometimes quite explicitly, those values that are understood to be ones which the residents of the state and visitors to the state can consider aspiring to live by.”

Katherine Poole-Jones, associate art history professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, said the task force must ask what values they wish to collectively endorse in the public realm.

“We look at each monument, (and ask) is it representative of those shared community values and ideas, if it ever was?” Poole-Jones said. “Because that’s also a possibility, that it never was. What is the value of the monument remaining in public space? How is the community benefiting from the monument?”

“And I think we also have to carefully balance that against the discomfort, the pain, the alienation, it may cause some members of the community, because we have to understand that the spaces that monuments occupy cannot be entered into in a neutral way for everyone,” she added.

She said this is especially crucial to think about when discussing the grounds of government buildings, “because, of course, the history of Confederate monuments was putting them up at statehouses as tools of intimidation.”

The city of Chicago is undertaking a similar examination of its statues, and two Chicago monuments of Christopher Columbus were temporarily removed last summer as part of this effort.

Some cities, including Richmond, Va., Jacksonville, Fla., and Indianapolis, Ind., have removed statues of Confederate officers.

Last year, former House Speaker Michael Madigan requested that the board of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol remove monuments of Stephen Douglas and Pierre Menard from Capitol grounds.

Douglas, a slave owner, served as Illinois’ secretary of state, state Supreme Court justice and in the U.S. Senate among other roles.

Menard, also a slave owner, was the first lieutenant governor of Illinois, and he supported political actions devised to ensure slavery was legal in the state.

Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the committee, suggested the task force consider adding monuments commemorating former President Barack Obama, as well as Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor; Ida B. Wells, a co-founder of the NAACP; and Rudy Lozano, a labor activist from Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.

But Rachel Leibowitz, an assistant professor at the State University of New York, cautioned the task force against adding too many new figurative monuments and memorials to the Capitol grounds.

She pointed to the Texas Capitol grounds, which has 22 statues, monuments or memorials.

“And, their site is physically larger than yours with the Stratton building, so this is just to say there can be a lot of physical clutter on the ground,” she said.

Leibowitz said the committee could also consider relocating statues or monuments from the Capitol grounds to another place, like a hall of statues.

“I suggest that only because then the state capitol grounds becomes open to everyone,” Leibowitz said. “There is no one there saying, ‘I am not represented.’ There is no one saying, ‘I don’t see myself and my story reflected.’ It is the building, it is the ground. It’s something to consider. I’m not saying that’s the solution, but I just want to offer that as a possibility.”

She also raised the possibility of constructing abstract memorials, such as the Vietnam Memorial in the Washington, D.C.

“I would encourage you also to consider as you move forward…is what you want more figurative statues, more great men or great women on pedestals, or do you want to create something that is more inviting?” she said. “Do you want to celebrate, for example, the life of Dr. King in a way that offers moments in time, that shows struggles and triumphs? How do you want to commemorate this history moving forward? You have options.”

Flowers and Republican spokesperson Rep. Tim Butler, of Springfield, have endorsed relocating and redesigning the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. that is currently placed across the street from the Capitol grounds.

Secretary of State Jesse White, who also supports this proposal, has pledged $5,000 towards the construction of a new King statue.

Flowers said White and the Architect of the Capitol Andrea Aggertt will present at the next task force meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.