Do Lincoln, Washington deserve statues? Chicago flags 41 controversial monuments for scrutiny

Grace Hauck, USA TODAY
·6 min read

CHICAGO – City leaders on Wednesday flagged 41 controversial monuments, plaques and artworks for public discussion, months after the mayor formed a committee to review the city's collection in the wake of a series of protests related to monuments last summer.

The debate over Chicago's monuments comes as cities around the U.S. continue to grapple with which historical figures deserve to be memorialized.

Some of the monuments flagged by the committee promote narratives of white supremacy or present demeaning characterizations of American Indians, according to the committee. The flagged works include depictions of Christopher Columbus, Leif Ericson, Sir Francis Drake, Robert Cavelier de La Salle, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley and others.

The city launched a website Wednesday to kick off the public engagement phase of its Chicago Monuments Project, which runs through April. Residents can submit feedback to the city or attend virtual events through the site. The city is also accepting proposals from community partners for $1,500 stipends to host public conversations about the city’s monuments.

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A lone man walks in a light snow storm through Chicago's Grant Park Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, past a snow covered statue of Abraham Lincoln.
A lone man walks in a light snow storm through Chicago's Grant Park Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, past a snow covered statue of Abraham Lincoln.

The project gives Chicago a chance to "face our history and what and how we memorialize that history," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement Wednesday.

"Given the past year and in particular the past summer that made clear history isn’t past, it is essential that residents are a part of this conversation," Lightfoot said. "This project is about more than a single statue or mural, it’s about channeling our city's dynamic civic energy to permanently memorialize our shared values, history and heritage as Chicagoans in an open and democratic way."

Almost all the 41 objects selected for public discussion were created between 1893, when Chicago held the World's Columbian Exposition, and the late 1930s, according to the city.

"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," the city wrote on its website. "These patrons were also responsible for idealized representations of American statesmen and military heroes."

The project's advisory committee – composed of city leaders, artists, academics and more – selected monuments for public discussion for:

  • Promoting narratives of white supremacy

  • Presenting inaccurate and/or demeaning characterizations of American Indians

  • Memorializing individuals with connections to racist acts, slavery, and genocide

  • Presenting selective, over-simplified, one-sided views of history

  • Not sufficiently including other stories, in particular those of women, people of color, and themes of labor, migration, and community building

  • Creating tension between people who see value in these artworks and those who do not.

On the project website, the committee wrote that the works flagged for discussion "are not a comprehensive inventory of all of the monuments and other public symbols that need attention" but "the start to a long overdue and necessary conversation."

Lightfoot formed the committee to review the city's more than 500 monumental sculptures, commemorative plaques and artworks last August, after police and protesters clashed at the site of a Columbus statue in Grant Park in mid-July, leaving dozens of officers and protesters injured.

The city took down that statue, along with a Columbus statue in Chicago's Little Italy neighborhood, at the end of July "until further notice."

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Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, which represents more than 50 organizations in the Chicagoland area, told USA TODAY his community was "surprised" when the city took down the statues and has been "adversely affected" by the removals.

Onesti, whose mother came to the U.S. from Florence and his father from Naples, was born in Chicago's Little Italy. Onesti said he was married on Columbus Day and went directly to the statue in Grant Park afterward to hop on a wedding cake-shaped float in the Columbus Day parade.

"This is an icon that for generations has represented the traditions brought on by our parents and grandparents that came to this country in search of a better life for their families," Onesti said Wednesday. "I understand how passionate certain people are regarding this issue. I just hope they can take a deep breath and understand our passion and our willingness to come together to work this out."

Onesti acknowledged that not all Italian-Americans want to see the statues returned. Chicago Alderman Daniel La Spata, for example, advocated for taking down the statues this summer and cheered their removal. "To quote Queen Isabella, 'Bye Columbus!'" he wrote on Twitter at the time.

Chi-Nations Youth Council, an inter-tribal Native youth organization involved in the effort to remove the statues, said it was “disappointed” that only 41 works were flagged for public discussion.

“The white supremacist statues aren’t the issue, the white supremacy structure we live under is the problem, these public works are a reflection of the true spirit of American exceptionalism,” the council said in a statement Wednesday.

In recent years, many groups nationwide have called for the removal of monuments to Christopher Columbus, who many say should be remembered as a violent colonizer responsible for countless deaths of indigenous Americans.

Around the same time Chicago took down its Columbus statues, a statue of Columbus was removed from outside the city hall of Columbus, Ohio. In Baltimore, protesters on the Fourth of July pulled down a statue of Columbus and threw it into the city's Inner Harbor.

While the Chicago Monuments Project "provides a vehicle to address the hard truths of Chicago’s racial history," according to the city, it also aims to elevate new ways to memorialize Chicago’s "true and complete history."

The city plans to erect a series of new monuments using feedback collected through its engagement efforts and is seeking project ideas from artists or community groups.

"The City’s public art collection is a defining characteristic of Chicago and it should reflect and respect all Chicagoans," Mark Kelly, committee co-chair and commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, said in a statement. "The public’s input will now help us evaluate the collection and to commission new works."

Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest district, is working on a similar review process. The district is creating a committee that will meet quarterly to review concerns about specific works of art and advise schools the collections.

See a full list of the objects up for public discussion in Chicago here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chicago flags monuments for review, including of Lincoln, Washington