Nothing lasts forever: Historical statues deserve periodic reconsideration

Bob Vitale
The statue of Christopher Columbus outside of City Hall is set for removel

Removing Christopher Columbus from his perch outside City Hall won’t end racism or lift anybody out of poverty, historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries said. 

But statues honoring historical figures with not-so-honorable histories have played a part in building and maintaining the systemic racism that’s held so many down, according to the Ohio State University associate professor of history.

“As long as these symbols of white supremacy are occupying spaces in our public squares, we are signaling in some way, shape or form this wasn’t bad,” Jeffries says. “We’re not trying to erase anything by removing them. We’re saying we no longer value the principles this person represented.”

Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther announced Thursday that the city will remove a 28-foot statue of its namesake that was a gift from Genoa, Italy, in 1955. Columbus State Community College President David Harrison announced Tuesday that a statue of Columbus would be removed from the school’s Downtown campus.

State Rep. Janine Boyd, D-Cleveland Heights, called on the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board Thursday to remove a Columbus statue from the Statehouse lawn.

Columbus statues are coming down in other cities, too, as are monuments to Confederate leaders, slave traders and others with racist histories. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week ordered the removal from the U.S. Capitol of four portraits depicting former speakers who were part of the Confederacy. San Francisco has removed statues, street signs and playground names in recent years after documenting honorees’ homophobia and racism.

Defenders say historical figures shouldn’t be judged through the lens of today’s values. But Jeffries said there’s nothing wrong with that. They’re occupying today’s spaces, after all. Why shouldn’t we decide whether we still want to honor them?

The values Christopher Columbus represented to the world of 1955 aren’t specified, but those who dedicated his statue promised we’d continue to live by them. “We shall ever cherish and be guided by its meaning,” reads a quote from then-Mayor M.E. Sensenbrenner on the statue’s base.

Columbus artist Lisa McLymont wondered whether we should review all of our public art every 25 years or so to ensure pieces still represent the ideals we espouse. She has no problem, she said, with deciding that a work of public art — even her own — is no longer worthy of public display.

McLymont created a number of the anti-racism murals commissioned by Downtown and Short North businesses during three weeks of protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. She’s happy people want to preserve them, she said. but she’s not sure it’s necessary beyond photographs.

“Art is ephemeral,” she said. “Art is of its time.”

Central Ohio has 258 pieces of public sculpture, according to a database kept by the Greater Columbus Arts Council. Here are some whose subjects might deserve a second look:

Lucas Sullivant and ‘Celebration of Life’

A statue dedicated in 2000 by the Franklinton Historical Society honors the founder of the village that predates the city of Columbus. It’s located in Genoa Park near COSI. Across W. Broad Street, an abstract sculpture dedicated in 2004 depicts Sullivant’s wife, Sarah, holding a child toward heaven. The child is Arthur Boke Jr., who was raised by the Sullivants and is recorded in history as the first African-American person born in Franklin County.

“The valuable lesson we learn from Arthur Boke’s beginning is that … it shows people of different colors can live and work together,” reads a well-meaning website called Boke is buried with the Sullivant family.

But the Sullivants were white slave-holders who brought the people they had enslaved with them from Kentucky. At least two accounts said Boke, named after a family friend, was the son of a Sullivant family slave who “abandoned” her baby.

The website dedicated to Boke says he was a slave of the Sullivants, as well, who was taught “many skills” by the family but forbidden to learn how to read or write.

These Are My Jewels

For the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Ohio commissioned a monument to honor favorite sons who contributed to the Union cause during the Civil War. Moved later to the northern lawn of the Statehouse, it includes eight separate statues and is the most stately of the Capitol Square collection.

Not all of Ohio’s jewels still shine, though. 

Perhaps the most tarnished is General Philip Sheridan, a Civil War hero who governed former Confederates so firmly as commander of Texas and Louisiana during Reconstruction that President Andrew Johnson called him “an absolute tyrant” and relieved him of his post.

Instead he was sent to the Great Plains to aim those tyrannical tendencies at Native Americans. 

“If a village is attacked and women and children killed,” Sheridan said, “the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack.” More famously, he said: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

General William Tecumseh Sherman, another Ohioan honored on the statue, expressed white-supremacist views before, during and after the Civil War. 

Before the war, he had no issue with slavery but suggested Southerners should treat enslaved people “more near the status of human beings.” During the war, he refused to accept Black men into his ranks, saying, “I like (n-word)s well enough as (n-word)s, but when fools and idiots try and make (n-word)s better than ourselves, I have an opinion.” After the war, as commanding general of the U.S. Army, he dismissed the idea that soldiers fighting Native Americans should try to differentiate between men and women or adults and children.

Spirit of ’98

The statue of an American soldier near the Statehouse west portico honors members of the military who put down what’s remembered in American history as an “insurrection” in the Philippines. In the nation whose brief existence as Asia’s first republic was followed by nearly half a century of U.S. rule, it’s remembered as a war for independence that resulted in the deaths of at least 250,000 Filipinos, many from disease or starvation after being forced from their homes and villages.

Philippine historians say the toll is closer to 1 million. 

General William Rufus Shafter said without any apparent hint of irony: "It may be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords.” 

That’s not the inscription on Ohio’s tribute, though. It reads: “The cause which triumphed through their valor will live.”

Lincoln Goodale

The most adored citizen of early Columbus donated land to the city in 1851 for what’s now Goodale Park. He also offered free medical care to the poor and donated land for the first home of Capital University. A bust of Goodale sits on a pedestal inside the park.

A 2001 book by historian Charles C. Cole Jr., though, includes Goodale as part of a movement in the 1820s called “colonization,” which was the idea that enslaved people in the United States should be freed — but shipped back to Africa.

Cole wrote in “A Fragile Capital” that some members of the Ohio State Colonization Society believed their idea could undo the evil of slavery. But most, he concluded, were looking for ways to keep the Black population of Columbus from growing.

William Oxley Thompson

“One might wonder where OSU would be today without Thompson’s leadership,” said the Thompson Institute, a Christian student group named after the ordained minister who served as university president from 1899 to 1925. A statue of Thompson stands on the west end of the Oval.

One might also wonder where Columbus City Schools would be. The answer: probably better off.

While serving as president of the university, Thompson also led the Columbus Board of Education. Although Ohio had banned segregated schools in 1887, he and others on the all-white board drew boundaries for a new school on Champion Avenue that did an end run around the law by effectively  separating white and Black students. They segregated teachers as well. 

(A charter change that’s still in effect today had just wiped out Black political representation in Columbus by creating at-large elections for City Council and school board seats.)

According to a 1997 history by Ada Ward Randolph, who’s now a professor of educational studies at Ohio University, Thompson and others “feared miscegenation and the long-term effects of children of different races in the same classroom. Moreover, they had serious misgivings about the presence and influence of … African-American teachers with white students.”

There’s a difference between remembering and celebrating history, Jeffries said.

He’s no fan of Christopher Columbus, saying, “He never changed. He was an enslaver, a trader of human beings. He never gave up on that.”

He sounds more circumspect about Sherman. “I’m so glad he was on the Union side,” he said. “You can honor that, but it doesn’t mean we have to celebrate him.”

Should Goodale’s honors as an early Columbus benefactor be reconsidered? What about Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union war effort as a general and nearly crushed the Ku Klux Klan as president but once owned a slave? William McKinley, whose monument holds the most prominent spot on Capitol Square, is the commander in chief who started the Spanish-American War that melded into the war against Philippine independence that ended with up to a million deaths.

“There’s no rulebook for this. There’s no line,” Jeffries said when asked about the tipping point between the good and bad deeds of yesterday’s heroes. “What we have is these moments where society pauses to reflect on these symbols.”