In 2017, New Orleans took down a monument commemorating a white uprising in 1874 against the racial integration of the city’s government. Two years after that battle, a contested presidential election led to the removal of troops from the South and the restoration of unbridled white domination. “The national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South,” a plaque affixed to the monument in 1932 declared, “and gave us our state.”
The monument was hidden away in storage, where nobody could see it. How is that a victory in the battle to recognize and uproot white supremacy?
It isn’t. As racist memorials come down, we need to preserve them in museums and other public places that teach us about the hateful dimensions of our history. Anything less will whitewash racism, all in the guise of rebutting it.
Consider the recent removal of the statue of former Philadelphia Mayor and Police Chief Frank Rizzo, who led brutal assaults on African American and LGBTQ citizens. The Rizzo statue was a standing rebuke to these victims and to anyone who cares about equality and fairness under the law. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, it had to go.
But go where? The city announced it will be placed in — you guessed it — storage, until a plan is developed to donate or relocate it. Reportedly, Rizzo’s family is hoping to reclaim it themselves.
No. A thousand times no. All of us in Philadelphia own that statue, along with the painful history that attaches to it. Instead of hiding it — or giving it away — we should display it in a museum or outdoor garden, along with explanations of why the statue went up and why it came down.
That’s all as it should be. Mostly erected during the era of Jim Crow, a half-century after the Civil War, these monuments spun a heroic nostalgia around a system built on the enslavement of African Americans. They have to go, too.
But if we simply put them out of sight, they’ll eventually be out of mind. And we will have perpetuated our own act of nostalgia, forgetting the ugly truths that brought us to this moment in the first place.
The latest monument to come under fire is the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, where critics and protesters clashed this week. Mayor Jim Kenney directed the Arts Commission to review the statue — which is now encircled in plywood — and pledged a “public process” to consider “all points of view” about it.
Let’s hope preservationists are part of the process. Like everything in America, the debate over monuments has become absurdly polarized. One side says they are symbols of local pride and “heritage,” so we have to keep them where they are; the other says they memorialize white supremacy, so we have to hide or even destroy them.
But it’s precisely because these objects embody white supremacy that we must safeguard them, in places that foster real historical understanding. Of course we shouldn’t let racist leaders and traitors remain on pedestals. But simply pulling them down won’t do anything to challenge their legacy. That will require the hard work of preserving our racist past, so — one day — we will learn not to repeat it.