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Long Story Short: Who stays, who goes, who decides?

7/20/20



Buffalo's Columbus monument prior to removal

photo courtesy of Buffalo Architecture and History/Chuck LaChiusa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feet of clay

Last week I watched the critically acclaimed movie Color Out of Space, which is closely based on an a story by H.P. Lovecraft, who lived from 1890 to 1937. Lovecraft is considered the father of modern horror. It says something about how familiar he is to American audiences that the title of an upcoming HBO series produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams invokes his name—Lovecraft Country. His stories have inspired such writers as Stephen King, John Carpenter, Robert Bloch, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice. Guillermo del Toro, who began directing his latest movie in Buffalo before COVID-19, considers him a major influence. There’s a large body of games, music, and other media that draws on his characters, settings, and themes. Though he gained little recognition during his short life, Lovecraft has a huge following today.

 

I recently learned that he was also a xenophobe, racist, and anti-Semite. My thought was: if there’s a statue of Lovecraft somewhere, its days are numbered. Sure enough, Rhode island’s Providence Athenæum, which Lovecraft frequented, is considering removing a bronze bust of Lovecraft that has been on display there for decades. The bust is caught up in the recent “rush to remove” that has become a cultural flashpoint since the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed.

 

A treasonous legacy

Why are so many monuments being yanked down by mobs or removed by local governments from public spaces in America? And when is it appropriate to remove a monument? To address this, it’s necessary to understand why these works were put on public display in the first place. In the case of the roughly 800 statues commemorating the Confederacy, the reason is odious.

 

Most were not installed following the end of the Civil War in 1865. Their appearance spiked in the early 1900s, when states were enacting Jim Crow laws, and again in the mid-twentieth century, during the civil rights movement. Both were times of racial tension, and the message was one of white supremacy, not historical commemoration. No other nation on earth memorializes traitors who fought a civil war against their country at taxpayers’ expense.

 

The case against Columbus

There aren’t any Confederate statues in New York State, so the question of their removal is immaterial here. Not so with Christopher Columbus. Buffalo has an active Italian community, many of whom still consider Columbus a symbol of national pride.

 

In the wee hours of July 10, Buffalo city workers removed a statue of the Italian explorer that had stood since the 1930s in a West Side park named in his honor. The Federation of Italian-American Societies of Western New York facilitated the statue’s removal, to protect it from vandals. It will be replaced by a yet-to be-commissioned statue honoring the contributions of Italian American immigrants, and the Federation and city will jointly choose a new name for the park.

 

Reason for unease

The problem with Columbus is that the entire premise on which he is honored is false. Children were once taught that he “discovered” America, proving the earth was round. Neither is true. By 1492, when Columbus set off to find a shorter route to India, it was firmly established that the earth was spherical. Columbus insisted, however, that it was much smaller than scientists and mathematicians claimed. He also thought it was pear-shaped.

 

Columbus never set foot on what is now the US, and until his death he refused to acknowledge that he failed to reach Asia. The Caribbean islands, where he actually landed, were already inhabited by a quarter million indigenous Tiano people when he arrived. After his first visit, during which the Tiano welcomed Columbus and his crew with generous hospitality, he returned with seventeen ships and twelve-hundred men to slaughter and enslave them. “They do not carry arms or know them,” wrote Columbus, “With fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” Columbus ordered all Taíno people age fourteen and older to deliver to him a quantity of gold dust every three months. Those that failed had their hands cut off.

 

How did we get here?

For centuries, Columbus was merely a footnote in world history. During the American Revolution, there was a desire to develop a national identity with an origin story unconnected to Britain. In 1775 Phillis Wheatley, a gifted 14-year-old (or 21, depending on the source) African-American slave, wrote a poem to George Washington in which the allegorical figure “Columbia” represented the American nation. Columbia is a woman, but her name is derived from Columbus. The poem was a sensation, and “soon Columbia and Columbus were appearing in songs, poems, and essays in newspapers around the colonies,” says Edward Burmila in The Nation.

 

Early Americans already knew that Vikings and Portuguese had been to North America earlier, but Columbus was no other country’s hero, so America claimed him. The person most responsible for the myth of Columbus is none other than Washington Irving, of Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame. In 1828 Irving wrote the first English language biography of Columbus, and, as was common among 19th century American writers, his objective was patriotism. The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus is one of the earliest examples of American historical fiction. Irving’s Columbus is a benevolent explorer, known for his generosity to America’s native people.

 

In 1892—the four-hundredth anniversary of his voyage—Columbus-mania hit a peak, with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

 

The role of Italians

Around the time of the Columbian Exposition—between 1880 and 1914—the largest wave of Italian immigrants arrived in America and were subjected to harsh discrimination. One of the biggest single mass lynchings in US history occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when eleven Sicilian immigrants were killed by a mob. American press coverage of the event was largely congratulatory. Unsurprisingly, Italian-Americans championed Washington Irving’s mythical version of the Columbus story, which helped them gain national acceptance.

 

After intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and New York City Italian leader Generoso Pope, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt designated October 12 Columbus Day, but it was not yet a national holiday. That honor had to wait until Buffalo resident Mariano Lucca founded the National Columbus Day Committee, which lobbied successfully for federal holiday status in 1968.

 

Since the end of the twentieth century, nine states and parts of California no longer recognize Columbus Day, having replaced it with other titles, such as Explorer’s Day. And, one by one, Columbus memorials have come down.

 

Statues aren’t history

There is an equestrian statue near my house of Civil War General Daniel Davidson Bidwell. Although I see it almost daily, until I did research for this article, I knew almost nothing about the man on the horse. In this regard, I would guess I’m no different than most Buffalonians, for whom Bidwell’s statue is a just local landmark. Monuments are notably ineffective at conveying history. My grandfather knew people who fought in the Civil War. He could have known Bidwell. When my father was a child, a few war veterans might still have been around. Firsthand historical memories span about two generations, then the living chain is broken. We forget. I’ll venture that Bidwell is safe from mob-toppling, largely due to his relative anonymity.

 

As statues are removed from public view—often to be relocated in museums where they can put into historical context—some people argue that history is being erased. Removing a statue doesn’t blot out history; it reflects it. There is a cultural sea change occurring, manifested in the act of removing these symbols of racism. 

 

The vanishing hero

In simpler times, society honored people for what they accomplished or represented. Today, we are just as likely scorn them for their human failings. Few historical figures, when judged by present day standards, stand up to scrutiny.

 

Many of America’s founding fathers owned slaves. Winston Churchill was a bigot. Gandhi called South Africa Blacks “Kaafirs” (infidels) and suggested that Jews should have committed collective suicide during the holocaust. Mother Teresa forced deathbed baptisms on Hindus and Muslims. Einstein was a serial philanderer and absent father. John Lennon abused his first wife and had little to do with their son. Martin Luther King Jr. had numerous affairs and probably much worse. The list goes on. Historical figures are complex individuals, not the cardboard characters we often make them out to be.

 

Who stays, who goes, who decides?

H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t honored with a bronze bust because he was a racist. He is recognized for his literary accomplishments and cultural influence, despite his personal failings. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, civil rights leaders, politicians, and protestors are looking askance at any historical figure remotely perceived as having espoused slavery or racism. Many works of art—and that’s what monuments are—have been toppled or defaced by protestors acting without authority. It’s a rush to judgement that carries risks. When one group or individual illicitly removes or vandalizes a public work in protest, it empowers others to act.  

 

Recently, a contemporary work by American artist Brad Downey, comprising a commissioned chainsaw sculpture of Melania Trump, was set on fire by vandals. Located near her hometown of Sevnica, Slovenia, the work was meant to spotlight President Trump’s anti-immigration hypocrisy. Last week, a statue of Jesus’s mother Mary was burned in Boston. One of George Washington was vandalized in Chicago. Buffalo’s Columbus statue was defaced shortly before it was removed. Over Fourth of July weekend, a statue of Frederick Douglass was torn from its pedestal in Rochester and dumped near the brink of the Genesee River gorge.

 

We are heading down a slippery slope.

 

McKinley

About the time Rochester’s Frederick Douglass was toppled, the McKinley Monument in downtown Buffalo was being defaced with paint and chalk. Slogans, obscenities, and other markings resulted in “tens of thousands of dollars” of cleanup costs at taxpayer’s expense, according to Captain Jeff Rinaldo, of the Buffalo Police.

 

The iconic landmark was conceived by the architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, who led the design of Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition where McKinley was assassinated. It includes sculptures by noted artist Alexander Phimister Proctor of sleeping lions (symbols of strength) and turtles (emblems of eternal life). At its center is a ninety-six-foot tall obelisk, an ancient design often referred to as Cleopatra’s Needle. Carl Sandburg wrote a poem about the monument called Slants at Buffalo, New York.

 

But why deface the McKinley monument? It was probably more of an act of anger toward city government than an attack on McKinley. It’s doubtful that most people in Buffalo know much about him beyond the fact that he was killed here. Which is why we have a monument in his honor.

 

McKinley’s legacy

McKinley was the last president to serve in the Civil War. He started as an enlisted private and rose to the ranks of major. Historians regard his 1896 victory as the start the Progressive Era, a period of social activism and political reform. Politico declares that Nobody Understands How Great a President McKinley Was. Most experts consider his presidency to be above average. His biographer, H. Wayne Morgan, claims that McKinley died as “the most beloved president in history.” Yet, he has largely fallen intro obscurity. Which is why it’s unlikely that Buffalo’s downtown monument is the source of uneasiness of the sort invoked by Confederate monuments.

 

Nevertheless, those who look hard enough can always find something to be unhappy about. In a recent Facebook exchange, David Halladay Hill, who says he “has been working in civil rights for over fifty years” states, “It’s sad so many white people are concerned about statues. Where is their outrage about humans being choked or shot?”

 

Two reactions: people of color are perfectly capable of caring about statues (which the McKinley monument is not) as much as white people, and since when are caring about public art and being concerned about police brutality mutually exclusive?” Hill calls McKInley “one of the most racist and intolerant,” and offers the war against the Filipino Insurrection as proof. How many people living today know anything about this war without the help of Google? Therein lies the problem. In many cases, you have to look hard for reasons to object to particular monuments. And there are always those willing to do so. Hill makes the dubious claim that the McKinley monument is “an offence to many and should be removed.”

 

“Why do we care about statues?” he asks. My question exactly.

 

Fillmore

A statue of the thirteenth U.S. President Millard Fillmore stands outside Buffalo City Hall. Probably few people notice it, but this monument is more problematic.

 

Fillmore rose from poverty to become an East Aurora schoolteacher, later becoming a lawyer. He served on the New York State Assembly, and as state comptroller. He helped draft Buffalo’s city charter. He was a founder of the Buffalo High School Association and the founding chancellor of The University at Buffalo. According to the Buffalo News, he was involved in establishing the “Buffalo Club, the Buffalo Museum of Science, the public library, the History Museum and what is now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo General Medical Center and the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.”

 

He was also active in the New York Militia and attained the rank of major as inspector of the 47th Brigade. He served four terms in the House of Representatives before becoming President Zachary Taylor’s Vice President. As President, he gets poor reviews, partly because he only served one partial term after succeeding to the office upon President Zachary’s death. He did, however, keep the US out of wars with Mexico, Peru, Brittain, France, and Spain without the country losing face. Fillmore widely declared slavery an evil, but one which he believed the federal government had no authority over. In their study of presidential power, Steven G. Calabresi and Christopher S. Yoo call him "a faithful executor of the laws of the United States—for good and for ill."

 

The compromise

It is the signing by Fillmore of the Compromise of 1850—which included the Fugitive Slave Act—that is most troubling. This was a package of five separate bills passed by Congress in September 1850, that defused a political confrontation between slave and free states. Today, it’s rightly seen as detestable. The Fugitive Slave Act—which required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state—marks a low point in American history. We do, however, have the benefit of knowing how things turned out. In Fillmore’s view, signing the aptly named bill was the best hope of avoiding an impending Civil War that could split the United States.

 

Many things in WNY, including streets, businesses, and schools, bear Fillmore’s name. But before recent events, few people thought much about the man, beyond knowing his name. Millard Fillmore Hospital spokesman Michael Hughes says, “no one has previously raised a concern about the Millard Fillmore name with Kaleida Health officials.

 

Mayor Byron Brown has asked the city's Arts Commission to reexamine all city statues and monuments with assistance from the Buffalo History Museum.

 

The takeaway

The case for removing Confederacy and Columbus monuments but retaining those honoring McKinley and Filmore may seem tenuous. To state it simply, the former two celebrate wicked acts against humanity and the nation: slavery, treason, conquest, and genocide. Confederate monuments were erected to promote white supremacy, while the two Presidents are honored for their positive accomplishments and Buffalo connections, despite their failings.

 

A hundred years from now, people we admire today will be viewed through a different societal lens that will likely spotlight failings we don’t perceive now. Would anyone want the sum of their life to be defined by their worst moments? Not likely.

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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