Last summer’s wave of statue removals across America may have felt transformative, but it didn’t significantly alter America’s statuary landscape: The almost 50,000 monuments that remain in place around the nation overwhelmingly depict white males — including, across the South, avowed enemies of the United States — while largely ignoring the contributions of Black Americans, women and others.
That’s according to a new study of U.S. monuments that strengthens the argument for reconsidering many of these statues. But it’s a process that should have some standards to it beyond the remove-anything-that-makes-anyone-angry dynamic too often in play lately.
Communities have been sporadically rethinking their monuments for years, but last year’s murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, and the resulting racial reckoning across America, gave the issue new focus. It is against that backdrop that the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab, made up of curators, artists and others, has released its “National Monument Audit,” quantifying who gets immortalized for what.
Abraham Lincoln has the most statuary in his honor, with 193 monuments. George Washington is second at 171. Christopher Columbus — who never set foot on a North American continent already teeming with people, yet is lionized as having “discovered” it — comes in third.
That Martin Luther King Jr. is ranked fourth is an encouraging sign that America has come to understand his importance to the nation. But Black Americans are otherwise severely underrepresented. Women, half or more of the population, are similarly rare on the list.
Meanwhile, the top names include two men honored for attempting to rip America apart: Robert E. Lee, ranked sixth, and Jefferson Davis, ranked 13th. What other nation erects statues to its defeated wartime enemies?
The report notes that “monuments have always changed” to reflect changes in society. In that sense, the addition of more memorials honoring women, Blacks and other overlooked figures should be an easy call — as should the removal of Confederate monuments.
To say those monuments represent history is inaccurate, since most of them were erected long after the Civil War, during the Jim Crow era, to intimidate Black Americans. To the extent that is, in itself, a part of America’s history, it belongs in museums with historically accurate context, not on town-square pedestals.
Washington and others who enslaved people, but are cast in bronze for reasons unrelated to that grievous injustice, are more complicated cases. Lee’s statues memorialize him because of his defense of white supremacy, which is fundamentally different from memorializing Washington in spite of that failing. Statuary isn’t a claim of flawlessness regarding its subjects. If it was, there would be no statues.
That would be a shame, because immortalizing notable humans’ likenesses is a tradition as old as humanity itself, one steeped in historical and artistic significance. But unlike those rigid faces in stone, society evolves, and its monuments should evolve with it.
This editorial originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.