Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Moving Statues Around

It's hard to give up long held ideas and beliefs. My father, God rest his soul, went to his grave, eighty two years of age, still believing things he learned in the second grade. Neither logic nor empirical observation could sway him from the basic facts and ideas he learned in school as a child. 

Unless scientific findings challenge one's deeply held existential beliefs, I think it's safe to say that most people, unlike my father, accept the premise that scientific facts are facts, only until someone proves them otherwise. However I think many of us are more like my father when it comes to history. To them, the definition of history is the following: something happened, someone wrote about it, we read it, and that's that. Attempts to correct misconceptions about the past are usually met with suspicion, or even contempt. Any time someone tries to re-shape our concept of history, we call it "revisionist" or in our current Trump era parlance, "fake" history. 

This was made crystal clear to me a couple years ago when Charles Leerhsen wrote a biography of the great ball player, Ty Cobb. Now it was "common knowledge" that despite his prowess on the field, Cobb was a racist and all 'round nogoodnick. Leerhsen was prepared to write a book exploiting Cobb's misdeeds, and found several, (as the man had quite the temper). But he was surprised to discover that much of what we think we know about Ty Cobb, including his relationship with and his feelings toward black people, were never mentioned (at all, anywhere), until a biography of him was published shortly after his death. Through scrupulous research, Leerhsen could not find one shred of evidence that Cobb had racist tendencies, at least for a man of his time. On the contrary, Cobb, the descendant of Southern abolitionists, was a vocal supporter of the integration of the game of baseball, and a generous benefactor of charities that supported African American people in his home state of Georgia. After very serious consideration, Leerhsen came to the conclusion that the author of Cobb's biography, Al Stump, was an unscrupulous man who looking to create sensation where there wasn't any, made up most of the stuff that destroyed Ty Cobb's good name. Unfortunately it was Stump's work that would become the story of record on the life of Cobb.

As a result of his hard work, Leerhsen's book, Ty Cobb, A Terrible Beauty, was met with incredulity by many who refused to accept that their assumptions and prejudices about Cobb could be wrong. Its critics called the book, revisionist history. After all, it was none other than the de facto authority on American history, Ken Burns, who told us on public TV no less, that Cobb was "the great black mark on the history of baseball." If he said it, it had to be true, right? Well it turns out that Burns's description of Ty Cobb, as well as just about everybody else's, came straight out of Stump's work, virtually word for word.

I bring him up because Ty Cobb's name has been mentioned along with those of other notable Americans, whose monuments, some people believe should be removed from places of honor because those individuals had flawed characters of one kind or another. 

This all comes on the heels of the movement to remove Confederate monuments from public places across America. Taking advantage of the moment, some folks going well above and beyond the motives of the movement's original intent, are demanding the removal of likenesses of presidents who owned slaves, and any other historical figure who may have at some point in his or her life, displayed bigotry of one kind or another. As if on cue, the right wing "don't remove any monument anywhere, anytime" crowd, are in ecstasy over their disgust of the "liberal snowflakes" who would dare remove monuments to cherished Americans, simply because they are "offended" by them. 

The right wing sentiments could be summed up by a Donald Trump tweet he posted after the tragedy in Charlottesville two weeks ago: 

Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....

...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson... So foolish! 

As I've said time and again, there are good arguments to be made for both sides of the Confederate monument debate, but changing history is not one of them. Other than being an injustice (if you buy into Charles Leerhsen's premise as I do), taking down the likeness of Ty Cobb in Comerica Park in Detroit would not erase Ty Cobb from baseball history. No one is talking about expunging his stats from the record books, removing him from baseball's Hall of Fame, or burning the millions of copies of the dozens of books about him. No one is suggesting wiping clean the memories of Cobb from millions of baseball fans or members of his family. 

The same can be said of the Confederate monuments. Taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee won't make people forget who he was, what he did, and what he fought for. It certainly wouldn't change the outcome of the Civil War, or everything that has happened since. Besides, no one is suggesting melting down the bronze likeness of General Lee and recasting it as Al Sharpton, (although I'd love to see the reaction of the rightist snowflakes if that were ever suggested). The plan is for these statues to be moved to institutions such as museums or cemeteries, where they can be viewed as historical artifacts, rather than as icons of devotion, which many have become in their current settings. 

As promised at the end of my last post, I'd like to point out some examples of local monuments which I am very familiar with, that illustrate what happens when monuments and the values of the community in which they stand, are no longer in sync.


Chicago could at one time boast more Polish people than any other city in the world with the exception of Warsaw. By the 1890s the city boasted dozens of churches and countless institutions and organizations serving the community and preserving Polish culture. One of those organizations, the Kosciuszko Society endeavored to erect a monument in then heavily Polish Humboldt Park, to their namesake hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a military engineer who served with distinction in both the American Continental Army during the US Revolutionary War, and with the combined forces of Poland and Lithuania during their conflict against Russia. 

Polish Constitution Day rally at the foot of the Kosciuszko Monument in Humboldt Park
photographer unknown
For eight years, the society collected funds for the $30.000 necessary to construct the monument. Everything from pennys donated by laborers, to a $500 gift from the great Polish pianist turned politician and advocate of Polish independence, Ignacy Paderewski, went into the coffers. The resulting equestrian statue of Kosciuszko in the role of brigadier general, is the work of Kasmir Chodzinski, who was selected out of many Polish artists in a competition held by the Society. Standing in the northeast corner of Humboldt Park's great lawn, it is said that 100,000 people showed up for its unveiling in 1904 and that President Theodore Roosevelt sent a wire of congratulations. From then until the late 1960s, the statue served as the terminus for Chicago's Polish Constitution Day parade, held at the beginning of May each year, as politicians and performers of all ethnicities gathered in its shadow to address and entertain Chicago's Polonia. On a personal note, at one of those gatherings, while sitting atop my father's shoulders, I caught my one and only glimpse of Robert F. Kennedy who before his assassination in 1968, made a regular pilgrimage to the parade.

The Kosciuszko monument was a great source of pride in that community until the neighborhood began to change. By the end of the sixties, the parade moved Downtown and the equestrian statue, no longer relevant to the people who now lived in the neighborhood, became the target of graffiti and other vandalism. The great lawn designed for public gatherings, became the site of baseball fields and the Kosciuszko monument became controversial for one reason only, it was in the way.

By the mid-seventies, the monument was removed for the construction of another ball field. Few Poles were still around the neighborhood to mourn its loss. The statue found new life, restored to good as new, and relocated to Burnham Park on the peninsula between the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. It is now in an arguably more prominent site downtown, yet it has lost its context as the focal point of Humboldt Park, literally the crossroads of Chicago's Polonia. Today it is part of a pan-Slavic ensemble, forced to share its glory on the street now called Solidarity Drive, with a monument to the Czech man of letters Karel Havlicek, also moved from its original location, and the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus.

Kosciuszko, his glory just a little faded, as today he stands watch over Burnham Park
Despite that bit of a comedown for the statue, the legacy of Tadeusz Kosciuszko the man, lives on, along with the society named after him. 

As I said, there wasn't much controversy over the Kosciuszko monument, it was moved for practical reasons. The same can't be said for two monuments that depict tragic episodes in Chicago history.


No statue in Chicago has suffered more indignities than the wobegone policeman atop the original Haymarket Riot Monument. It's been kicked at, spit upon, covered with graffiti, hit by a streetcar, moved at least six times, and blown up, twice. The riot which the monument commemorates, and the events that followed, are famous the world over as one of the pivotal moments in the international movement for workers' rights. Here is my account of the Haymarket Affair from a 2011 post.

After the May 4, 1886 riot which began after police moved in to break up an otherwise peaceful workers rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square, most of public sentiment favored the police, who lost eight of their own (many of whom died from indiscriminate shots fired from other policemen), over the demonstrators,  (who lost several of their own), the majority of whom were immigrants from Central Europe. In fact anti-immigrant hostility in this city was so high at the time that the man commissioned to create the monument, Danish artist John Gelert, was asked to re-work the face of the police officer, because it looked "too Irish." Gelert refused. The pro-police sentiment of the time explains why the loss of the policemen, not the workers, was commemorated by a statue, while the injustice of the execution of several of the organizers of the rally who had nothing to do with the violence, was overlooked. It would take over a century for the city to rectify that.

The original Haymarket Memorial in its second location in front of Union Park
photographer unknown
The police statue originally stood at the site of the riot on Desplaines Avenue between Lake and Randolph Streets, but it proved to be a nuisance as streetcar tracks had to be re-routed to avoid it. After it had been vandalized on numerous occasions, the statue was moved west to the edge of Union Park in 1900. Then on May 4, 1927, the forty first anniversary of the riot it commemorates, irony struck in the form of a streetcar going full speed which jumped its tracks and rammed into the statue, knocking it from its pedestal. After that, the statue was moved inside the park where it enjoyed thirty one years of relative peace and obscurity. In 1958 it was moved back to the Haymarket area which is where I first encountered it as a child. 

Then came the Days of Rage in the late sixties when battles with the police again became part and parcel of life in Chicago. On October 6, 1969, the statue was blown up by members of the Students for a Democratic Society, (the S.D.S.).

As Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok would have said on "Farm Film Report" during the late seventies SCTV comedy program: "Whoo boy they sure blowed that statue up real good." The legs of the policeman ended up on the Kennedy Expressway twenty feet below while hundreds of windows in the neighborhood were blown out. The Chicago Police were none too amused. The act prompted this bit of hyperbole from a police department spokesperson:

The blowing up of the only police monument in the United Sates by the anarchists ... is an obvious declaration of war between the police and the S.D.S. and other anarchist groups. We feel it is kill or be killed regardless of the Jay Millers, (director of the Illinois ACLU), Daniel Walkers (who investigated the clashes between the police and rioters during the 1968 Democratic convention and later became Illinois governor), and the so-called civil rights acts.

The statue was duly restored and returned to its perch above the expressway where it stood exactly one year to the day of the first explosion, when it was again, blowed up real good. After that, it received round-the-clock police protection until it was removed into police custody where it has remained ever since. Currently it resides in the courtyard of the Chicago Police Department Headquarters at 35th and Michigan, where you can see it but only if you look real hard from the street.

This is the public view of original Haymarket Monument today
 as seen from 35th Street in front of Chicago Police Headquarters

More irony about the monument can be found in the words on the pedestal:

I had to sweet talk an officer into allowing me access to photograph the statue up close. As you can probably guess, the base of the monument is not original. it's the work of local artist Mike Baur and
made its debut as the pedestal for the 1889 sculpture in 2007 when the monument made its latest move to CPDHQ.

Fro 32 years, visitors coming to Chicago from all over the world were shocked to find that the site of of one of the most important moments in the history of the labor movement, stood without any reminder of the significance of the place, not even a commemorative plaque. According to Chicago's official historian Tim Samuelson,
I can remember that in my own lifetime, not long ago, bringing up the idea of commemorating Haymarket was impossible because it revived emotions that were too strong. It took a long time to get historical perspective, to be able to look back at Haymarket and see that it was everyone's tragedy.
Mary Brogger's Haymarket Memorial, unveiled in 2004
In 2004, a new monument by Chicago artist Mary Brogger was unveiled at the Haymarket site, precisely where the speakers' platform, a wagon, stood on that fateful evening. Bragger's work features a disassembled wagon upon which several semi abstract figures are engaged in various activities related to either constructing or dismantling the wagon. The author of a New York Times piece described the work as "ambiguous." Brogger wanted it that way. She told the Times reporter:
I was pretty adamant in my own mind that it would not be useful to depict violence... The violence didn't seem important, because this event was made up of much bigger ideas than one particular incident. I didn't want to make the imagery conclusive. I want to suggest the complexity of truth, but also people's responsibility for their actions and for the effect of their actions.
Whether or not she was successful is up to the mind's eye of the beholder. Perhaps for a memorial commemorating an event as tragic and complicated as the Haymarket Affair, neutrality is exactly what the doctor ordered. After all, the facts are all out there, it's up to us to process them, not for a statue to decide for us.

Troubled as its history was, the original Haymarket Memorial was not the most controversial monument in Chicago history, not by a long shot.


In 1812 the United States was at war with Great Britain. The Brits found a useful ally in Native Americans whose lands and ways of life were quickly being usurped by the ever expanding settlement of white Americans. In that year, Chicago was a small settlement with homes scatted along the main branch of the Chicago River, all of them a stone’s throw from Fort Dearborn. 

Before the war there was a relatively peaceful coexistence between the white settlers in Chicago and the Indians, mostly members of the Potawatomi and Miami peoples who freely traded and even intermarried with the settlers. But as news of the new allegiance spread, there was discord between members of the tribes, mostly along generational lines. The elders perhaps realizing the hopelessness of their situation, looked to maintain peace with the settlers while the young “turks” were eager to cut their teeth in battle and join forces with the British. 

Fort Dearborn, built nine years earlier, was the United States’ westernmost Great Lakes encampment, built at the strategic point near the mouth of the Chicago River. In July of that year, a similar fort along the Straights of Mackinac, connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron, was captured by the British with the help of their Native American allies. With that garrison gone, the Commandant of Fort Dearborn, Captain Nathan Heald received word from his superiors that the defense and re-enforcement of Fort Dearborn was no longer tenable and to prepare for evacuation. 

Joined by Captain William Wells who volunteered to assist in the effort, Captain Heald and a group of 55 soldiers, 12 civilian militiamen, 9 women and 18 children began the perilous journey from Chicago to Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

As the group marched along the lake shore, unbeknownst to them, obscured by sand dunes to the west, a group of perhaps 500 Potawatomi warriors were waiting for them. When the warriors were spotted, Captain Heald made the fateful decision to attack, thereby separating the civilians and soldiers. As the vastly outnumbered soldiers approached, the Indians fell back, allowing the hapless Americans into their flanks, where they didn't have a chance. After the soldiers were neutralized, the Indians went after the wagons containing the civilians. They made quick work of the militiamen and then proceeded to slaughter many of their wives and children. Wells by all accounts, fought valiantly to the death. So impressed by his efforts, some the warriors cut out the heart of the fallen captain and consumed it, so as to absorb some of his courage. Wounded but still alive, Heald surrendered after receiving promises that the few remaining survivors would be spared. The following day Fort Dearborn was burned to the ground and the captive survivors were eventually ransomed. 

Much of what we know of that event comes to us through the writings of Juliette Kinzie, whose memoirs of frontier life called Wau-bun, contains a chapter devoted to what would become known as the “Fort Dearborn Massacre.” But Mrs. Kinzie was a generation removed from the events of that day; her accounts based upon the testimony of some of the survivors. As one can imagine, Kinzie’s story is told from the viewpoint of the settlers. Despite numerous inaccuracies and dramatic flourishes, Kinzie’s account would be the story of record of the dreadful event for most of the nineteenth century. 

Another version of the story that would emerge some eighty years later, was told by Simon Pokagon, the son of a Potawatomie Chief who was present at the attack. Where Kinzie spoke of Indian treachery preceding the attack, Pokagon spoke of white treachery. Pokagon places the blame directly on the shoulders of Captain Heald for being foolish enough to go through with the march knowing full well of its dangers, However, few of the details regarding the actual battle differ in the two stories. 

Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument
on its original site at 18th and Calumet
The site of the attack at present day 18th Street and Calumet Avenue, would become the property of industrialist George Pullman who commissioned another Danish sculptor, Carl Rohl-Smith to create a monument commemorating the horrific event. The subject of the sculpture is based directly upon a story taken from Mrs. Kinzie’s account. In the tableau, one of the women in the group, Margaret Helm, grabs for a knife of an Indian while he holds a tomahawk aimed at the woman’s head, about to strike. Meanwhile another Indian, Black Partridge, a chief who had opposed the attack, intervenes to save the woman's life. At the feet of the three principal characters in the scene are the bodies of victims either killed or mortally wounded in the massacre.

Pullman willed the monument of the grizzly event to the Chicago Historical Society where it stood in that institution's lobby for many years. But the statue proved even too problematic for the museum after Native American groups protested its simplistic depiction of their people and the event. The statue briefly returned to it original site at 18th Street in the 1990s until it was removed by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, ostensibly for conservation. Since then is has sat in a Chicago Park District warehouse where it will likely remain for a long time, perhaps even perpetuity.

The story of the event and fate of the Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument is a good example of the way history can been hijacked by special interest groups bent on promoting their ideology. In 2009, a new park opened at the site of the attack. Pondering over what to name the park, Park District officials harkened back to the words of Simon Pokagon, who over one hundred years earlier said:  “When whites are killed, it is a massacre, but when Indians are killed, it is a fight.” It was decided that the park would be given the somewhat awkward name, "The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park." That appellation has now become the default label for the tragic event. Here is an op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune written on the 200th anniversary of the attack, that tries to explain why what happened on that scorching hot day 205 years ago was not a massacre. The article's author Patrick T. Reardon has this to say:
Calling the battle a "massacre" cast the engagement in stark black-and-white terms and demonized the Indians. Good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. Indeed, at the dedication of the Fort Dearborn Massacre sculpture in 1893, the director of the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum) described the attackers as "invaders" and "barbarians."
The truth, however, is that, at that moment 200 years ago, the Americans were the invaders, and ....Chicago was "a symbol of an imposed colonial presence." 
OK I get it. It is without a doubt that Native Americans were subjugated by and suffered greatly at the hands of white settlers who stole their land and their livelihoods. It's not hard to understand why Native Americans sided with the British against the Americans, and we can grasp that an attack of a military unit is part of war. I think everyone today understands the loaded meaning of the word "massacre", and it is safe to say that the insistence of using that word to describe the events that unfolded on August 15, 1812, went a long way to seal the fate of the Native American people who once called this area home.

That's all well and good, but despite going into great deal about the events of the attack, what Reardon fails to mention anywhere in his article is the inconvenient truth that innocent women and children were brutally killed that day. The same is true for the plaque that currently marks Battle of Fort Dearborn Park.

Simon Pokegon did not ignore the victims. Describing the atrocity he said: “the Angel of Mercy seem(ed) to have been asleep” as a lone warrior entered their wagon and bludgeoned them all to death. For those actions that warrior "was hated by the tribe ever after" according to Pokegon.

The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park
I suspect few of the hundreds of residents of Chicago's new South Side walking their dogs everyday in this 1/2 acre park
understand the full magnitude of what took place here 205 years ago.
The plaque at the opposite end of the park only tells part of the story. 
It does not serve history to leave out or minimize that critical part of the story.  Whether we like it or not, whether or not it it fits into our world view or not, by any definition of the word, what happened on August 15, 1812 on the shore of Lake Michigan was a massacre. Rebranding the incident as a "battle" is not going to change that fact.

On the other side of the ideological divide, here is an article from a right wing publication that advocates the return of "Chicago's Forgotten Masterpiece" to the site of the attack.
By 1970, a new generation of Chicagoans turned to forgetting and rewriting history. The American settlers and soldiers who died at the Fort Dearborn Massacre in 1812 were transformed into "white invaders." Carl Rohl-Smith's masterpiece was removed from the Chicago History Museum and hidden from view.
In researching this piece I came across a wonderful quote from John N. Low, visiting assistant professor in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois and a a member of the Michigan-based Pokagon Potawatomi. Regarding the change of terms from massacre to battle, Mr. Low said this: 
History is not truth; it’s memory, And a part of remembering is considering what we forgot. 
What some of us forgot is that the white people really were invaders. History wasn't re-written to make that so. Others forgot about the innocent victims of the "Battle of Fort Dearborn." Those same people may have forgotten that white settlers paid dearly for the right to call this land theirs, but the other side forgets that white people were here by choice, knowing the risks of taking over land that for centuries was occupied by someone else.

Tim Samuelson's argument about the Haymarket Affair being too painful for many years to come to grips with it, is even more compelling regarding the events that took place on August 15, 1812 on the shore of Lake Michigan. With the Haymarket Affair, eventually the police came to the realization they they too were part of the labor movement that protesters fought and died for at the end of the nineteenth century. In fact everyone of us who lives off a paycheck must be thankful for the actions and sacrifices of those people.

However the history of the relationship between Native American people and the European settlers who supplanted them in this country remains complicated and painful. It's true that the murder of the innocents during the "Battle of Fort Dearborn" was an atrocity. There were also many atrocities against Indians committed by the hands of white people.

Unfortunately the story of post-Columbian Native American history continues to be told from at least two sides. While the Fort Dearborn Monument attempts to tell two sides of the story by showing Black Partridge saving Margaret Helm while another Native American tries to murder her, it nevertheless falls short. Perhaps it is impossible for a work of art to put everything into its proper historical context. On the other hand, the plaque at Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, while also attempting to tell more than one side of the story, still leaves out a very critical component. Neither does a very good job of putting the story into proper context.

As we've seen, history is not served without the proper context.

Perhaps it is fitting that Carl Rohl-Smith's Monument to the Fort Dearborn Massacre will not see the light of day until we are able to reconcile all sides of the story, and give up our tenaciously held beliefs, assumptions and prejudices about the past.

Until the day comes if ever, history will not suffer its loss. 

Nest up, two Chicago monuments that may be soon headed for the chopping block, stay tuned...

No comments: