Statue of Ulysses S. Grant in Lincoln Park Credit: John Greenfield

Thursday’s release of footage from the killing of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Mexican American boy, in Little Village last month, which showed the child was unarmed with his hands up at the moment a white police officer shot him, has further intensified the calls for a racial reckoning that grew in May 2020 with the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Last year’s Chicago racial justice protests included a July demonstration at the downtown Christopher Columbus monument, where a bloc of protesters carried out a premeditated attack on officers guarding the statue, after which police reinforcements violently cleared the area with pepper spray and billy clubs. To prevent further bloodshed over statuary, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had sculptures of the genocidal explorer “temporarily relocated” under cover of night.

Soon afterward the mayor created the Chicago Monuments Project, an initiative to reassess artwork and historic markers in parks and on the public way. Check out Deanna Isaacs’s recent Reader coverage for more background on the commission, plus info on opportunities for public input.

When the project’s website went live on February 17, the backlash was swift. That’s because the 41 potentially problematic monuments “identified for a public discussion,” which could possibly result in removal, included revered figures like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. Many folks argued via letters and op-eds in media outlets like Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, not to mention social media posts, that while these guys weren’t the saints they’re made out to be in elementary school textbooks, despite their flaws they did more good than harm for humanity.

When the CMP website launched, there were limited—or no—explanations for singling out some monuments over others. The text mentioned vague concerns about images that may promote white supremacy; disrespect Indigenous people; overlook the contributions of women, people of color, and labor; and, cryptically “[create] tension between people who see value in these artworks and those who do not.”

I contemplated these issues shortly after the website launch during an epic cross-country ski trip from Edgewater to South Shore along the Lakefront Trail, visiting several at-risk statues.

Not long after that, on March 1 I went on a Twitter rant. “I support #ChicagoMonuments Project’s mission of reevaluating public art. But they really need to do a better job of explaining why some Chicago statues made their list . . . and others didn’t.” Here are some of the Andy Rooney-like questions I tweeted at the committee:

    <i>Peace and Justice</i>, a monument to Daisaku Ikeda in Uptown’s Peace Garden
    Peace and Justice, a monument to Daisaku Ikeda in Uptown’s Peace GardenCredit: John Greenfield
  • Why are the two seemingly respectful depictions of Native Americans next to Diversey Harbor, The Alarm by John J. Boyle and Cyrus E. Dallin‘s A Signal of Peace, which were both donated to the city with explicitly anti-racist intent, under scrutiny?
  • Why are statues of Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, identified as possibly problematic, but the massive lakeside monument to slavery apologist Stephen Douglas wasn’t mentioned?
  • While it’s understandable that the statue of Washington by his eponymous park is being reassessed, given that there were 317 enslaved people at Mount Vernon at the time of his death, how come the Jefferson Park Transit Center’s statue of Thomas Jefferson, who owned hundreds more enslaved people than Washington, got a pass?
  • Why are monuments to Union Generals like Grant, John Logan, and Philip Henry Sheridan on the list, but the memorial to Confederate soldiers in Oak Woods Cemetery is not?
  • Why isn’t the monument to Daisaku Ikeda, the president of the extremely controversial Soka Gakkai Buddhist sect, in Uptown’s Peace Garden being reexamined?
  • Is the statue of Norse explorer Leif Erikson in Humboldt Park on the list simply because of text calling him “Discoverer of America”?
  • And why the heck would anyone be offended by the statue of “The Republic,” aka the Golden Lady, in Jackson Park?

I was pretty sure I knew most of the answers, but I wished the CMP would spell them out.

Labor historian Timothy Messer-Kruse highlighted another puzzling omission in a Tribune op-ed. He noted that American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers was an outspoken proponent of Chinese exclusion, once publishing a pamphlet titled “Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism,” and campaigned to block Black unions from having a say in the AFL. If that’s not white supremacy, what is?

I’d add that, despite being a Jewish English immigrant himself, Gompers endorsed the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration by eastern European Jews, Italians, and other groups deemed undesirable, eventually contributing to countless Holocaust deaths.

Perhaps Gompers got a pass because of the committee’s desire to uplift labor history.

Statue of Samuel Gompers in his eponymous park
Statue of Samuel Gompers in his eponymous parkCredit: John Greenfield

Soon after my tweet storm, I got a call from a guy who was similarly frustrated by the CMP’s opacity. He’s a management consultant and amateur bagpiper who lives in Lincoln Park and describes himself as “a historically literate civilian.” His wife is worried about blowback to his critiques of the monument project, so let’s just call him “Pete.”

Pete told me he attended a public conference call in late February with committee members. “They were extremely evasive.” He said he was particularly annoyed with UIC urban planning professor John J. Betancur, who refused to say why French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle is on the list—the monuments project website offers no clue.

In response, Pete filed several Freedom of Information Act requests with the three agencies associated with the CMP: the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), the Chicago Park District, and the Chicago Public Schools. He asked for documents related to the decision-making process behind all 41 monuments.

Inspired by Pete’s Sherlock Holmes act, I filed my own FOIA with DCASE, trying to determine if any of the descriptions on the website were edited in the wake of the backlash.

Around that time, on March 2 the Better Government Association published an account of its own largely thwarted efforts to get the backstory of the CMP’s decisions. City officials argued the committee isn’t a public body, and therefore isn’t subject to Illinois’s Open Meetings Act. Committee member Cesáreo Moreno, the visual arts director of Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art, told BGA he’s grateful for this “what happens in the committee stays in the committee” policy. “These conversations are uncomfortable and can be painful for many people and certainly ignite responses from individuals that are emotional.”

Likewise, Pete’s and my FOIA requests mostly came up dry. The agencies said they wouldn’t or couldn’t share documents about the decision-making process because these were preliminary planning docs that aren’t subject to public records laws, or else they claimed no such documents exist.

Pete filed a complaint with the Illinois attorney general Kwame Raoul’s office about one of DCASE’s non-answers, but a rep from Raoul’s office responded that the department’s excuse appeared to be valid.

However, in response to my FOIA, DCASE spokesperson Christine Carrino said the 41 descriptions hadn’t been altered since the initial February 17 launch. But she added that additional explanations about the supposedly problematic aspects of people and statues I’d mentioned in my Twitter thread—Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Grant, and “The Republic”— were added to the website’s FAQ section on March 4, three days after my rant.

There was also an explanation of why other arguably problematic statues were omitted from the list. “The committee understands that these artworks are not a comprehensive inventory of all of the monuments and other public symbols that need attention, but [this] is the start to a long overdue and necessary conversation.”

Asked whether my Twitter tantrum helped inspire the new FAQ entries, Carrino replied, “We started discussing the FAQ document on February 23 in order to respond to cumulative input that we received from the public, stakeholders, and the media.”

I don’t agree with all of the new arguments on the FAQ page. For example, the committee implies that Lincoln’s conduct following Minnesota’s 1862 Dakota War was a stain on his presidency because he allowed the execution of 38 Dakota men.

The incident isn’t so black-and-white. According to modern-day estimates, in addition to those hangings, 150 Dakota combatants were killed during the conflict, while 106 U.S. soldiers and volunteers were slain, plus 358 U.S. civilians. Although the incident took place during the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln spent about a month reviewing trial transcripts of 303 condemned men, only permitting those whom he said, “had been proved guilty of violating females” or “were proven to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles” of resistance against American troops. It was a politically unpopular decision, but Lincoln reportedly commented, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.”

On the other hand, Native people at the time and ever since have pointed out that most of the Dakota did not speak English, did not understand the crimes for which they were being tried, and lacked defense counsel.

I have a few other issues with the committee’s explanations on the FAQ page of why certain monuments were and weren’t singled out. However, I feel the CMP adding more info to its website was a step in the right direction towards transparency.

But Pete’s not impressed. “It’s unbelievable that the Chicago Monuments Project claims to have generated no documents or analysis,” he said. “They clearly have an opinion or a historical perspective, but they lack the guts to actually lay out their case.”  v