Stephen Dou­glas statue flap: ‘A lot of catch­ing up to do’

His­to­rian wants it kept where it is but used to give a broader sense of his­tory

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - NEIL STEIN­BERG nstein­berg@sun­times.com | @NeilStein­berg

Un­like you, I’ve ac­tu­ally been to the Stephen Dou­glas Tomb at 35th and Cot­tage Grove. Three years ago, at the in­vi­ta­tion of Sherry Wil­liams, pres­i­dent and founder of the Bronzevill­e His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. The BHS had stashed its col­lec­tion in the tomb keeper’s house and was be­ing kicked out — by the Illi­nois His­tor­i­cal Preser­va­tion Agency, iron­i­cally enough.

I mean, I as­sume you haven’t been there. Maybe you have, on a school field trip or some­thing. So I apol­o­gize. It’s bad prac­tice to make broad state­ments about groups of peo­ple you don’t know. A kind of prej­u­dice, re­ally, no mat­ter who does it.

Where was I? The Dou­glas Tomb. Not a must-see spot. Not ex­actly the Bean. As a fan of his­toric preser­va­tion, I was sorry to see the so­ci­ety’s col­lec­tion, mea­ger though it is, with­out a home.

Which tips my hand re­gard­ing the statue. There’s no ques­tion Dou­glas was a bad guy — Wil­liams called him “de­spi­ca­ble.” He not only owned slaves but treated them so badly that other slave­hold­ers com­plained, which is re­ally say­ing a lot. Dou­glas was some­thing worse than a sin­cere ad­vo­cate of slav­ery — he did so cyn­i­cally, po­lit­i­cally, to hoover up votes from dis­placed South­ern­ers down­state.

So ditch the statue? Hon­estly, it’s not my call. Whose call is it? J.B. Pritzker’s? Three state reps wrote the gov­er­nor Tues­day ask­ing that the 9-foot-tall statue be re­moved from its 96-foot gran­ite pedestal and the site no longer pro­moted to tourists.

If you’re ask­ing me — OK, you’re not, but let’s pre­tend — I view the site as a com­plete his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­fact. The tomb of Dou­glas. Af­ter he died, the neigh­bor­hood be­came a bru­tal pris­oner-of-war camp for Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers, plus a few stray traitors like for­mer Chicago Mayor Buck­ner Mor­ris, held for nine months for con­spir­ing with the Con­fed­er­acy to free pris­on­ers. (Is his por­trait up with the rest of Chicago’s may­ors out­side Lori Light­foot’s of­fice? Still wait­ing to hear. An­other prob­lem with purg­ing his­tory of the un­wor­thy: It’s an end­less task.)

Take the statue down and the site will al­ways be miss­ing some­thing, an empty plinth at the cen­ter of an area still bound up in Dou­glas’ legacy.

I sup­pose you could stick some­one else up. State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt wants to re­place the Dou­glas statue in Spring­field with a statue of Barack Obama. Hmm ... I won­der if she has dis­cussed her plan with the for­mer pres­i­dent? My hunch is, be­ing tapped to fill the space where Stephen Dou­glas once stood is not the kind of honor Obama would wel­come. We could put up Har­riet Tub­man in­stead; she’s not around to com­plain. But doesn’t that still un­der­cut the honor? To be el­e­vated on the bigot’s pedestal? I wouldn’t want my statue there.

I cir­cled back to Sherry Wil­liams to see if her opin­ion has changed. It hasn’t. She still wants the statue to stay. What is needed is not re­mov­ing con­text, she said, but adding more: trib­utes to mem­bers of the Black com­mu­nity, his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion that 19th cen­tury Chicagoans did not un­der­stand is also part of our proud her­itage.

“There’s a lot of catch­ing up to do,” she said. “There are some par­al­lel nar­ra­tives that could be ex­plored.”

The Bronzevill­e His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety col­lec­tion found refuge at IIT, though fewer come to see it than did when it was at Dou­glas’ tomb. In the years she worked there, talk­ing to vis­i­tors, none minded the “Lit­tle Gi­ant” gaz­ing down upon them.

“All of the res­i­dents that vis­ited the tomb site reg­u­larly, take a walk, en­joy the flow­ers, of course re­visit the his­tory of the site; none of them ever ex­pressed de­sire to re­move the mon­u­ment,” she said. “What they ex­pressed was a de­sire that the state of Illi­nois have an in­ter­preter there to tell the story dif­fer­ently than on poster boards.”

Three years ago, Wil­liams read from a ledger with the names of the slaves once owned by Dou­glas. It was a mov­ing and valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence, to use the overblown trib­ute to the slave­holder to tell the story of the slaves.

“There should be a bal­ance when you look at his­tory: the good, the bad and the ugly,” Wil­liams said. “Cer­tainly at those places where no­table in­di­vid­u­als had their foot­print. If they are think­ing of in­vest­ing money in tak­ing it down, they should in­vest money in putting up mean­ing­ful con­text, to un­der­stand­ing a story that has been one-sided too long.”

NEIL STEIN­BERG/SUN-TIMES

Sherry Wil­liams, pres­i­dent of the Bronzevill­e His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, in 2017, holds a ledger of slaves owned by Stephen Dou­glas. She wore a pe­riod cos­tume to tell vis­i­tors about the site.

A 9-foot statue of Stephen Dou­glas stands atop a 96-foot pedestal in Bronzevill­e. TYLER LARIVIERE/SUN-TIUMES

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