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Recent protests over racial inequality have sparked new debates over statues depicting members of the Confederacy and others with ties to racial injustice. Last week, protesters tore down the only outdoor Confederate statue in the District. This week, protesters clashed with police while attempting to tear down a statue of former President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square. In Alexandria, a statue of a Confederate soldier was removed after years of tension.
What symbolic significance do these statues hold? How are local community members reacting to their removal?
Produced by Kayla Hewitt
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast the local hosts of NPR's Throughline bring a historical context to the headlines. But first recent protests for racial equity have sparked new debates over statues depicting prominent figures of the Confederacy as well as others some say are racially derogatory. Recently groups of protestors have taken matters into their own hands pulling down a statue of Confederate General Albert Pike in Judiciary Square. This comes weeks after a statue commemorating Confederate soldiers in Alexandria, Virginia was officially taken down.
KOJO NNAMDIHere with me to discuss this is Margaret Barthel, a Reporter for WAMU. Margaret Barthel, it's good to have you with the Kojo Show team again even if it's only for a little while.
MARGARET BARTHELIt's good to be back, Kojo.
NNAMDIMargaret, yesterday hundreds of unarmed D.C. National Guardsmen were activated to protect monuments in the District including the statue of former President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, which protestors tried to take down earlier this week. What happened last night?
BARTHELYeah, and you're correct. The key word there is activated, so about 400 National Guard troops are on standby. They have not been deployed as of yet to support police in protecting these statues. Other than that I would say that last night the protests were significantly more peaceful in contrast to Monday and Tuesday night's, which were certainly more tense. Protestors did march out on Interstate 395 and stopped traffic there for a little while. And when they returned to Black Lives Matter Plaza police had originally earlier in the week blocked off Lafayette Square and the Plaza itself.
BARTHELBut last night the Plaza was reopened to protestors, though now there is fencing around St. John's Church. So -- and Lafayette Square is still closed. So that's kind of the situation that we saw last night.
NNAMDIYou were on the scene earlier this week when protestors attempted to tear down the statue of former President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square. What did you see and hear from protestors on the ground there?
BARTHELYeah. So it was quite a scene and I should start with that we've been seeing peaceful protests at Black Lives Matter Plaza for about three weeks. But that did change a bit on Monday. On that afternoon a group of Metropolitan Police Department officers forcibly removed some tents that had been setup by organizers along H Street. And then that evening a crowd of more than 100 people I would say tried to bring down the statue of Andrew Jackson in the center of Lafayette Square. Some people brought chains. Others kind of linked arms around the statue to form a human barrier. But they were met with significant force from Park Police and Metropolitan Police Department officers. They used pepper spray, rubber bullets and their batons to force protestors away from the statue and out of the park ultimately.
BARTHELI spoke with a history teacher who had been in the crowd. And he had been hit by a baton on his head. And, you know, he had a big egg on his forehead, but he told me he was committed to keeping up the protests and pressure. And, of course, as a history teacher he was thinking a lot about Jackson's legacy as a slaveholder and as the person who oversaw the Trail of Tears. And, you know, really thought that the statue, you know, had no place in an important sort of part of D.C. And told me that -- I think his quote was "symbolic politics are important." So that -- and that was definitely the prevailing attitude I heard from protestors on the ground.
NNAMDILast week the District's only outdoor Confederate statue was torn down by protestors in Judiciary Square. This is not the first time, though, that the Albert Pike statue has been a source of tension. Who else has fought for its removal in the past?
BARTHELYeah. These calls for the Albert Pike statue removal have been recurring for a long time. And I'm sure you know better than I do, Kojo. In 1992, there were weekly protests there and then At-Large D.C. Councilmember Bill Lightfoot was calling for its removal. Those calls for removal came back in 2017 after the night The Right rally in Charlottesville, Mayor Bowser, Attorney General Karl Racine, more than half of the D.C. Council including then Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who hired a crane to attempt to remove the statue all really thought that it had no place in D.C. But they were kind of foiled by the National Park Service. One of their lawyers said it would be illegal to remove the statue without Congressional approval.
NNAMDIWell, we reached out to the National Park Service to find out if there are any plans to restore the Pike statue. It has been reported that President Trump has personally requested that the statue be put back up. The National Park Service has not responded to our request for comment up till this point. Joining us now is Ida Jones. Ida Jones is an Archivist at Morgan State University. Ida Jones, thank you for joining us.
IDA JONESGood afternoon, Kojo. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIIda Jones, the controversy around these statues is not new. There have been debates over memorials and monuments for decades, but something seems to have shifted. We seem to be at a kind of turning point. What do you make of this moment?
JONESWell, unlike previous eras in which people have argued these things come down, we are now forced inside with the COVID to now force and face ourselves as individuals, as citizens and as a nation. Also coupled with the technology we now can see universally at the same time globally these kinds of incidences in which African people have been abused and mistreated. And so this movement in terms of its effectiveness is now linking this to an international money system that was funded by the transatlantic slave trade. So it was impoverishing Africa and enriching both America and Europe.
JONESSo now we're seeing that African people globally have been systematically placed on the bottom to benefit in the economic system that was to their detriment. So that is what makes this particular moment much more relevant in the 21st century as we move forward.
NNAMDIWell, some people argue that these statues should be allowed to remain standing in the name of educating the public. Do you believe these monuments still serve an educational purpose?
JONESI do because once we get past the emotion of the ugliness that has happened to the number of persons beginning with George Floyd and a cacophony of names of persons, who have been victims of police violence. We need to kind of move to education. So there is the anger and the emotion that leads to performative activity such as the taking down of statues or the spray painting of buildings, which I have a personal issue with. But I understand where that comes from, because that's an emotional experience. It has to go through gradual phases.
JONESThe next level should then be policy and legislative changes coupled with education that is ongoing not episodic. So it's not going to be limited to one particular month or one particular week. We will not be focused on these people. It needs to be continually in the incredibly important curriculum of ongoing learning. So those statues that are remaining should remain and they should be used as points of education and points of reference. Like I had mentioned in Auschwitz or when we go to Cambodia with Pol Pot and you see those moments and understand the ugliness of humanities inhumanity to man. That's what they should be serving as.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Justin Wilson. He is the Mayor of the City of Alexandria. Mayor Wilson, thank you for joining us.
JUSTIN WILSONThank you so much for having me, Kojo. It's great to be back.
NNAMDIAt the start of this month a statue commemorating Confederate soldiers in Alexandria was removed. How old are debates over that statue and why was it taken down now?
WILSONWell, this is something we have -- there have been activists in our community that have been working to move this statue for 50-60 years. So this is not a new discussion for us in the city. Ultimately the General Assembly enacted legislation during their session earlier this year in January, which allowed Alexandria to ask the owner of the statue to move the statue out of public right of way. And so that law goes into effect actually next week. Ultimately the owner of the statue made the decision to move it in advance due to some of the protests that had been occurring and their fear that someone might try to damage it. But this has long been the city's policy for a number of years now to pursue movement of the statue. And finally the General Assembly gave us the authority to do so.
NNAMDIThe owners are the Daughters of the Confederacy. How have community members reacted to the removal of the Appomattox statue?
WILSONYou know, I think generally in our community certainly in recent years this has been something that a very large swaths of our community wanted to see us pursue. I think they saw this statue as a symbol of the violent subjugation of an entire portion of our population for a long time, and really the fight for preserving that system. And so, you know, but really for Alexandria this is a part of a larger effort for us to tell a more inclusive story of our history. I think in the past we have only told a small portion of our history, one portion of our population's history. And we have committed ourselves over the last several decades to try and to change that.
WILSONAnd, you know, we recently purchased Freedom House, which was the headquarters of the largest domestic slave trading operation in the United States for a long period of time. And we are expanding the museum there to ensure that that story is told and continues to be an education for our community. We restored the Contrabands Memorial Cemetery. So these are important landmarks for us.
NNAMDIHere now is Steven in Ashburn, Virginia. Steven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVENYes, Kojo. I'd like to say that I'm actually a person who's made a 180 degree turn on this issue. I had in the past visited Dachau and was impressed with how they had preserved the history there. And always believed that these statues were part of our history and should be preserved. However --
NNAMDIWe only have about 30 seconds left.
STEVENOkay, yeah. I've recently realized that, you know, I cheered when the Berlin Wall came down. I cheered when statues of Stalin and Lenin were pulled down in Russia. And I cheered when statues of Saddam Hussein were pulled down. So why should I not apply that same thing here?
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. You can still give us a call at 800-433-8850. Are there any historical figures that you believe have been overlooked who deserve to be memorialized by a statue? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with about the debate over local statues with Justin Wilson, the Mayor of the City of Alexandria. Ida Jones is an Archivist at Morgan State University. And Margaret Barthel is a Reporter for WAMU. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIIda Jones, a caller who couldn't stay on the line said, "Leave the statues up. If the statues are removed you waive your right to replace them. At this point, statues are basically art. The world has changed and we will continue to change. The Civil War was the beginning of the freedom of slavery. The Confederacy lost. Think of what our country would be if we hadn't had the Civil War." How would you respond to that caller, Ida Jones?
JONESOutside of the art, there is also an educational aspect here. And so as a result when you look at children or international visitors coming to a country, they want to experience the culture and the history of that country. If these objects are removed then that ends the understanding of what was glorified at one particular time. So at some point in time we have evolved since then. There has been a lot of history since then. So I think those artifacts or those memorials become touchstones of conversation and points of information, and also a baseline to know that when you hear that rhetoric rising again in such political climates that we're living in, you will know what the outcome will be. So you're able to kind of preempt a future reoccurrence of a past experience.
NNAMDIMayor Wilson, what does the future hold for the Appomattox statue? Are there plans to move it to a new location?
WILSONSo the statue is owned by the Daughters of the Confederacy. They have not disclosed to us or to the public really what they plan to do with it. They have it now in their possession and presumably they'll put it somewhere. They've just indicated it will be outside the city. So we don't know. You know, and I would kind of draw a distinction, though, between the preservation of historic sites and memorials that pay tribute to different individuals. I think those are a very different thing.
WILSONObviously, Alexandria takes it's preservation responsibility very very seriously and we work very hard and commit a lot resources to preserving historic sites in our community. I find that different and distinct from a statue that is in this case paying tribute to those who fought for the South in the Confederacy -- or fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. And so I really think there's a distinction there. I mean, we are very committed to preserving historic sites. That's very very different.
NNAMDIMargaret Barthel, the statues of Pike and Jackson are not the only sources of controversy. A petition calling for the removal of a statue of Abraham Lincoln has been gaining traction. What does that statue depict and why are some calling for it to be taken down?
BARTHELYeah. So this is the so-called Emancipation Statue in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. And it depicts Lincoln kind of standing and almost towering over a kneeling freed black man who is shirtless. He has broken shackles on his kind of outstretched wrists. And, you know, there are some who say that it's a kind of a subservient attitude, and so more than 5,000 people have at this point signed a petition stating that they feel that the statue and I'll quote a little bit here, "perpetuates the idea that we are beneath white people and should be simply grateful for the scraps thrown our way." That petition was actually started by Marcus Goodwin, who is a candidate for an At-Large seat on the D.C. Council. And so those conversations are ongoing.
NNAMDIBut it is my understanding that former slaves paid for that statue.
BARTHELYes, that's right. So the funding for the statue was actually mostly in small donations from formerly enslaved people. Many of them black veterans of the Union army. And they wanted to memorialize Lincoln after his assassination in 1865. But the money and the commissioning of the statue was actually handled by white organizations. And that's significant to the protestors, who don't believe that the statue should stay. Marcus Goodwin told me that he has a hard time believing that the statue is the essentially the best depiction that his ancestors could have hoped for in sending their hard earned money into memorialize the president.
NNAMDISo is he calling for the statue to be removed or to be reorganized so to speak?
BARTHELFor the removal I think there are other voices, who are also suggesting that perhaps there could be some sort of edit or change to the statue itself that would kind of correct the power imbalance that you see in the depiction it presents.
NNAMDIHere's Michael in Millsboro, Delaware. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHi, Kojo. Good to talk to you. Basically my concern right now is solely all the rhetoric being uttered about the removing statues is that in a sense we're kind of rewriting history. I would much rather see the statues retained with a suitable editing or a new plaque that depicts the statue's -- the rendition of the statue's persona as having contributed to slavery by the fact of his victories or perhaps the lack of them. Another concern I have is how far can this reach? Are we going to be talking about rewriting grade school and high school textbooks in this regard?
NNAMDIYes, yes, yes. Yes.
MICHAELSo that's my fear about this. I don't think history should be rewritten basically.
NNAMDIWell, the fact that -- well, I'll let Ida Jones respond to this, because she is the Archivist.
JONESWell, Kojo, I think we have a very symbiotic idea about this with our Howard affiliation. And I do appreciate the caller's observation that seemingly if you tear everything down then what is there? What American has suffered with has been a level of amnesia and selective retention. So as a result what needs to be done is a corrective to this narrative, which has been gladly unfortunately skewed to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others.
JONESSo at the end of the day I am in total favor that they remain. The objects need to remain. They need to be critically analyzed. And understood of the level of depravity once again to education, Lerone Bennett writes a book "Forced into Glory," that goes into great detail about Lincoln's political ambidextrous nature. That if he could have preserved slavery and the Union he would have done both. So he was not oblivious to what he was trying to do. They have since sanitized Lincoln and made him some glorious emancipator as if the African enslaved had nothing to do with their liberation. So that once again is that amnesia and that selective retention. And I must also give two plugs if possible to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
JONESASAALH for over 110 years has been promoting the study of African American history and culture founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1915. We're an open organization. We're an active organization. We welcome your membership. Visit us and join us and participate in the systemic ongoing conversation about integrating the obscure narratives into the master narrative and taking away the amnesia. And secondly they're going to be having a teach-in at Lincoln Park on tomorrow by a variety of Douglasonians and Lincoln scholars and reenactors to kind of situate that sculpture in the time in which it was crafted and conceived. So we can't erase the time period. We need to contextualize that and live in concert with our past in full view of those actors who participated.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left, Ida Jones. But you mentioned the time in which they were conceived. There are several Confederate statues across the region. When were these statues erected and why?
JONESNow that's interesting. I did some research on Andrew Jackson and that was done in the 1850s. But some of the more I guess vulgar examples like the Richmond Monument Boulevard, those were done in the first quarter of the 20th century. Done by affinity groups such as United Daughters of the Confederacy and other individuals, who felt their heritage was being lost. So they set up these totems and these lovely mammoth sculptures to kind of call our attention to what they want to remember as the past and who their ancestors were.
JONESIt leads into the overall amnesia of the American narrative where some groups are marginalized and other groups are amplified. So those affinity groups in various parts of the country not just simply the South. I'm sure we have them in New England. I'm sure we have them in the West where individuals, who were selected for being patriots and heroes of a particular time to a particular group were celebrated. And I'm not against them celebrating who they are. It needs to be done in concert with the other side of this personality, the other side of the story.
JONESIt includes all of those marginalized groups from landless white men all the way down to African American women because we want to think that all white men are included, not true. So as a result there's a lot of us who are left outside of this pail of consideration, and those who have simply put themselves in the center. So to broaden this one narrow mindset we need to expand it to include all of us.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Ida Jones, thank you very much for joining us.
JONESThank you, sir, very much.
NNAMDIMayor Justin Wilson, thank you for joining us.
WILSONThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Margaret Barthel, always a pleasure.
BARTHELThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll be looking at the co-host -- or we'll be talking with the local co-hosts of NPR's Throughline who bring a historical context to the headlines. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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