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Obama Statue Floated To Replace Monuments To Controversial Illinois Figures At State Capitol

Derek Cantù/ NPR Illinois

An informal suggestion by Illinois’ longest-serving Black lawmaker would have former President Barack Obama immortalized in a statue possibly supplanting monuments to controversial historical figures in the Illinois State Capitol or its grounds.

State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), who chairs a legislative taskforce weighing whether to remove and replace certain statues on state property, said Wednesday that the Capitol building in Springfield currently doesn’t acknowledge Obama’s tenure in the General Assembly.

“There is no evidence that he was ever even here in Springfield and that he served as a state senator for eight years,” Flowers said during the taskforce’s second meeting Wednesday. “Let us recognize the historical significance of where Obama served and where he announced his presidency right here in Springfield.”

Flowers also suggested creating statues to commemorate NAACP founder and journalist Ida B. Wells, Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, and Mexican American labor activist Rudy Lozano.

During Illinois’ bicentennial in 2018, State Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield), who also serves on the taskforce, recommended commissioning statues of Obama and former President Ronald Reagan on Capitol grounds. The other two former U.S. presidents with Illinois roots — Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant — are already represented by statues at the Capitol.

However, as the taskforce continues evaluating the controversial legacies of some historical figures commemorated with statues, Butler said modern figures must also receive the same measure of scrutiny.

“Obviously, being the first African American president in the history of the United States puts him [in] a place that is tremendously historic,” Butler said. “But on top of that, there's controversial things that happened under the Obama administration...The drone strike war that President Obama carried out for all eight years of his presidency killed thousands and thousands and thousands of citizens around the world. And I think that's something that needs to be discussed.”

Despite this, Butler emphasized he still supports an Obama statue.

Credit Hannah Meisel/ NPR Illinois

Secretary of State Jesse White, the longest-serving and first Black politician to hold that office, is also advocating for a new statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The current statue of King is diminutive, weathered and not even technically on Capitol grounds, but rather across the street looking at the statehouse.

White, who met King as a college student engaged in the Civil Rights movement and attended church where King was the pastor, also committed to contributing the first $5,000 to the project.

“I stand ready to help in any way that will bring about a new statue of Dr. King that is prominent, dignified and representative not only of the man as I knew him but of the man as he was known to the nation and the world,” White said in a news release. “It is fitting and proper to commission a new statue of Dr. King and to find a more prominent location on the Capitol Complex.”

A Review of History

In April, Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) announced the creation of the taskforce following the formation of a similar group in Chicago charged with evaluating controversial monuments located within the city.

That followed former House Speaker Mike Madigan’s call last summer for the Capitol architect to review statehouse monuments and remove a painting of Stephen A. Douglas from the Illinois House chamber and consider removing two statues of Douglas. The architect removed one of the two Douglas statues in September, along with a monument to early Illinois settler Pierre Menard also formerly on the statehouse lawn. Both had been slave owners.

The taskforce on Wednesday heard testimony from academics on how to best approach making changes to the monuments at the Capitol and grounds, if any.

Dr. Adam Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, said it’s important for lawmakers to evaluate the values represented by the figures the statues embody, and whether they still hold water in modern society.

“We know that no individual is flawless and that all historical figures are to some extent prisoners of their pasts,” Green said. “Yet, we can determine whether an individual can be seen to be distinguished by their qualities as a political leader, say, more so than their personal prejudices.”

Flowers referenced the racist genesis for certain monuments located around the country, particularly those commemorating Confederate figures.

“The heroes we celebrate says much about us as a people and as a nation,” Flowers said. “The removal of the Confederate monuments have been driven on by the belief that monuments glorifies white supremacy. Also, there are concerns that the presence of these Confederate memorials over hundreds of years after the subjugation of the Confederacy continue to disenfranchise and alienate African Americans.”

Data collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center points to a parallel relationship between the rise of Confederate statue commissions and periods of elevated Civil Rights activism.

Illinois does not have any monuments commemorating Confederate soldiers, with one exception.

A memorial at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago marks a mass burial of over 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died at Camp Douglas, a Union prisoner-of-war camp used during the Civil War known for poor sanitation and unhealthy living conditions.

The monument, constructed in 1895, features a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier atop a 30-foot column. According to the National Park Service , over 100,000 guests attended the dedication, including President Grover Cleveland.

Alternative Approaches

Aside from totally removing statues, as was done with the outdoor Douglas and Menard monuments last year, other suggestions offered at Wednesday's hearing included removing statues from their pedestals in order to not artificially — and literally — elevate historical figures.

Dr. Katherine Poole-Jones, an associate professor of art history at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, referenced the work being done by the Edwardsville city council to address a statue of Ninian Edwards — Illinois’ third governor, the town’s namesake, and owner of enslaved people.

The local city council renamed the park where the Edwards statue is located and is in the process of moving it off of its concrete pedestal.

“I don't think that solves every problem, but I love this idea of him now being brought down to life size...and flawed,” Pool-Jones said. “I sort of feel like the pedestal as a form is not a valid form anymore in 2021. I think it is too monolithic; it is too celebratory.”

Other suggestions included completely moving all Capitol sculptures to a new location, or mandating that newly created monuments be more abstract, as opposed to depicting a specific historical figure.

Dr. Rachel Leibowitz, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the State University of New York, referenced the design of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., which consists of black granite walls and the names of soldiers killed and missing in action during the conflict.

“The reason this memorial is so successful is because it is open to interpretation,” Leibowitz said. “It is not a great person on a pedestal, it doesn't tell you how to grieve, it doesn't tell you how to feel, it doesn't tell you how to celebrate. It invites you in and it allows you to connect with it as you will.”

Lebowitz also pointed to a monument in Springfield memorializing the race riot of 1908 as a good example of an abstract monument. The monument, located in Union Square and sculpted by Preston Jackson, depicts various figures embedded onto two bronze slabs in the shape of the frame of a house.

“He is including scenes of a variety of participants in this horrific event, and he is acknowledging the history of this event by echoing the forms of these burnt houses,” Leibowitz said. “Another thing that's really wonderful about his artwork here is that it is humanly scaled. It is above the ground on these pedestals, but it is not enormously lifted off the ground to intimidate the viewer. It is welcoming to you; it is inviting you in to spend time and to look at all of these images on this work of art.”

The taskforce plans to continue holding public meetings at least through the summer, with intentions to release a final report detailing recommendations on which statues should be removed and which statues should be added.

For Dr. Green of the University of Chicago, one test the lawmakers will have at that point will be deciding how any new commissioned statues will be viewed by future generations.

“Just as we should be humble in judging the past, we should be similarly humble in seeking to speak to, rather than for, the future,” Green said. “What values of ours are likely to be judged narrow, ineffective, naive, and which ones might prove truly serviceable to the future? This, to be sure, is an impossible question to answer correctly; yet we have no choice but to try, for surely we will be judged by those to come.”

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.
Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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