Controversial American Historical Monuments

This will be a familiar topic to those of you that took the 4032 Public History class. I wrote this as a sample for a feature called History Lists (I didn’t get the job because I waited to write it until the last quarter ended and by that time they had too many freelancers). As I mentioned in the first class this was very difficult to write because I had to write about controversies without being controversial and pack in a lot of information with a limited number of words. Since editing it was so tough, I thought it would fun to see what other people could do with it and maybe I (and you too) can take away some tips about writing and editing this type of assignment for the future.

Controversial American Historical Monuments

The events of the past do not change, but sometimes the way we view them does. What happens when we erect a monument to a person or event that is meant to memorialize heroic deeds for all of posterity, only to find that future generations do not consider those deeds so heroic anymore? Or when a certain portion of the population finds the monument to be offensive or a symbol of subjugation? These are a few of the American statues that may not be standing the test of time because honoring the past is not always so simple.

Battle of Liberty Place Monument, New Orleans


The Big Easy has the reputation today as a proud multicultural city, but after the Civil War New Orleans was a seat of white resistance to Reconstruction. On September 14th, 1874 a group of former Confederate soldiers, calling themselves The White League, fought a bloody battle with the largely African American state and city police in what was then the Louisiana capital. Thirty-two people were killed and about one hundred others were injured in the fighting. The White Leaguers briefly seized the state house before federal troops restored the elected Republican governor, northerner William Pitt Kellogg. Only a few years later Reconstruction officially ended and white Southern Democrats retook control of the state. The White Leaguers were celebrated as heroes who led an uprising against the tyranny of Northern and black rule.

The spot of the battle was renamed “Liberty Place” and in 1891 the New Orleans City Council erected a stone obelisk where Canal Street meets the Mississippi River. The names of the eleven White League members who died were inscribed at the base, with no mention of the police and African American causalities. Lest the point be forgotten, a yearly parade is held September 14th with a wreath set at the foot of the monument.

Since then a number of plaques have been added and subtracted to the obelisk in attempts acknowledge local history while making peace with an ugly past. Today the monument rests about one block off Canal Street and out of sight of most tourists.


Haymarket Police Memorial Statue, Chicago-

To this day, nobody is certain who threw the homemade bomb from the crowd of labor protesters into a column of Chicago police on the night of May 4th, 1886. But when the bomb went off, years of mounting labor tension ignited in the city and rippled across the country. The panicked officers immediately opened fire indiscriminately with revolvers into the tightly packed Haymarket Square. Seven officers died along with a number of civilians who were never accurately counted, while dozens more were wounded. In a highly sensational trial, eight anarchist labor organizers were convicted for provoking the incident with no evidence of them actually throwing, constructing, or even knowing about the bomb. Four of them were hung for this ambiguous crime.

In 1889, business owners placed in the square a bronze statue of a police patrolman with a halting hand raised in defiance. Though few denied the sacrifice of the dead officers, in the coming decades the lack of recognition for the dead civilians made the statue a symbol of injustice in the court system and mistreatment by a notoriously reactionary police force. A car purposefully crashed into the statue in the 1920s and it was moved to Union Park where it might garner less resentment. Thirty years later it was returned to Haymarket only to be dynamited to pieces in 1969 by the Weather Underground in response to the Chicago Eight Trial. Mayor Richard Daley had the statue rebuilt and put back, but the Weathermen blew it up again eight months later. Once more, Daley rebuilt and replaced the statue, assigning around-the-clock police protection. Eventually, the statue was moved to the Chicago Police Training Academy where it can only be viewed by appointment.

The Pioneer Monument, San Francisco-


This 600 ton bronze and granite statue in San Francisco’s Civic Center was not particularly popular when it was unveiled in 1894. The Society of California Pioneers commissioned the monument to capture the courageous spirit of the settlers who braved the untamed West and raised San Francisco from a sleepy Mexican pueblo into the capital of a financial empire. Church groups objected that the ‘49ers were little better than criminals whose only motivation for settling the Golden State was lust for money and vice. But these days, the controversy spawns from the paternalistic imagery depicted on one of the monument’s pillars.

A scene intended to glorify the earliest European colonists in California depicts a submissive Native American lying on the ground while a Franciscan monk leans over him pointing to the heavens, giving the impression that we are witnessing a moment of conversion. A Mexican vaquero stands behind them; hoisting his fist in triumph (the ominous lasso in the vaquero’s hand has been removed). Native American groups say the statue degrades their people and their plight in an era when they faced near extinction. A plaque has been proposed to be added that would present the death and mistreatment of the Natives, but it was blocked when the Catholic Church and the Spanish government noted the settlement of California did not have malicious intent and they would be unfairly represented.


Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA-

In an example of the confusion that can arise as cities attempt to correct their provocative monuments, Richmond’s Monument Avenue now places prominent Confederate leaders alongside tennis star Arthur Ashe. The one-time capital of the Confederacy erected a towering likeness of Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1890 and over the next thirty years added statues of Jefferson Davis and other secessionist commanders. Not surprisingly, the source of Southern pride was not always popular among African American residents and efforts to place an Abraham Lincoln statue were fiercely shot down. Even today, many are still actively shaping the history of the area.

In 1995, Virginia’s first African American governor, Douglas Wilder was successful in approving the placement of a statue of one of Richmond’s famous black citizens: Arthur Ashe Jr. Though a sports figure seems like an odd choice to stand among the historical icons of the Civil War, he was an outspoken global civil rights leader. The confusion doesn’t end simply with his presence: the statue depicts Ashe triumphantly clutching a tennis racket and some books above three eager children, but from the wrong angle it appears that Ashe is attacking frightened children with a racket.

Did You Know?

There is a bust of the former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA. Responsible for the death of millions of his own people, the longtime arch-nemesis of the United States was publicly dubbed “Uncle Joe” while allied with the U.S. in World War Two. There has been a campaign to remove Stalin from the vast eighty-eight acre memorial, but many argue it would not be acknowledging the undeniable truth that the Soviet Union was paramount in defeat of the Nazis, suffering 26 million deaths on the Eastern front. There have been at least 32 statues of Stalin around the world, but there are perhaps scores more uncounted in former Soviet bloc countries.


- Bowman, Rex. “Protesters Target Stalin Statue at D-Day Memorial.” The Roanoke Times. Bedford, VA, June 15, 2010.
- Brechin, Gray. Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
- Green, James. Death In the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Guilded Age America. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.
- Levinson, Sanford. Written In Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies. Durham, NC: Duke Univeristy Press, 1998.

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