CHICAGO — Two years ago, as the city of Chicago reeled from a bloody battle between police officers and protesters over a prominent statue of Christopher Columbus, Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched an ambitious review of public monuments she said would be “a racial healing and historical reckoning project.”
This week, the Chicago Monuments Project finally released its long-delayed report recommending a series of new public memorials across the city and the removal of several statues that the commission flagged for honoring white supremacy or disrespecting Indigenous peoples.
Whether Lightfoot will follow the committee’s recommendations remains to be seen, however, as the mayor has promised to return Columbus statues to their former spots in the public square and has been critical of what she has said are efforts to rewrite history.
Amid spirited public debate about race in America in 2020, Columbus came under renewed scrutiny as statues across the U.S. were pulled down and local governments stopped celebrating the holiday in his name. Though Chicago was one of the cities where the monuments were lifted, Lightfoot at first resisted their removal and insisted afterward that the Grant Park statue should eventually return.
Her pledge, which she said was because she doesn’t believe in sanitizing history, drew controversy from opponents of the monuments — even as an Italian American group sued her for removing another Columbus statue in Little Italy.
Though the commission’s work was broader than Columbus, those statues will likely generate the most controversy and conversation. Still, Lightfoot’s task force recommended taking down several other monuments that negatively depict Indigenous people. One monument that should be removed, the commission said, is a statue honoring the Supreme Court chief justice who presided over Plessy v. Ferguson, which enshrined segregation.
The commission recommended removing the Jacques Marquette-Louis Jolliet Memorial because it “reinforces stereotypes about American Indians and glorifies a complicated and painful history of Western expansion. It features a cowering American Indian, following submissively in the footsteps of Marquette.”
A plaque honoring early Chicago settler John Kinzie should also be removed, the report said, because it “openly prioritizes whiteness and denies the existence of Native peoples, and earlier settler Jean Baptiste Point du Sable.” For similar reasons, the commission said the Jean Baptiste Beaubien plaque should go.
Bridge reliefs on the DuSable bridge, including The Defense, The Pioneers, Discoverers and Regeneration should also be taken down because they show American Indians “as merely a foil to help define the heroic acts and qualities of colonizing forces,” though that would be challenging as they’re built into the physical structure.
The report also recommends taking down tablets dedicated to explorers De La Salle, Jolliet and Marquette. One of the plaques, it says, highlights “the first white men to pass through the Chicago River” and “explicitly voice[s] the ideology of white supremacy.”
The proposal also seeks to revive debate over a monument to Italo Balbo, which the commission decries as “a gift of the fascist government of Italy.”
“According to historian John Mark Hansen, aviator Italo Balbo ‘was a leader of the movement’s paramilitary Blackshirts, one of the men who planned the insurrectional March on Rome to install Mussolini as Italy’s dictator and, as colonial governor of Libya, a supporter of Italy’s forced annexation of Ethiopia,’ ” the commission said.
Notably, the commission’s report and accompanying statement from the city does not include a statement from Lightfoot, who usually releases comment alongside recommendations from her appointed task forces.
“We believe the report’s ideas and recommendations will strengthen our City as our public art collection becomes more honest about our history and far more inclusive regarding who is represented and what stories are told,” advisory committee co-chairs Mark Kelly and Bonnie McDonald said in a statement.
Lightfoot’s office later released a statement thanking members of the committee for their work but offering no specifics on which recommendations she would follow or disregard.
“What is clear is the history of both communities is intrinsic to our shared Chicago history and the stories of both communities in all of the nuances needs to be told, known and respected by every Chicagoan. We need to create more opportunities for bridge building which will be to the benefit of us all,” Lightfoot said in the statement. “There are many more steps that will be taken on this long journey toward reckoning, understanding, and healing and I look forward to more dialogue, public engagement and the path forward.”
The panel recommended the city award $50,000 grants to artists for the development of ideas, including monuments honoring Pilsen Latinos, Mahalia Jackson, the Mother Jones Heritage Project, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable and Kitihawa, his wife and a local Potawatomi woman. In addition, the city should support monuments for the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, a “visibility project” focused on Black women and girls and a “community-led monument to victims of gun violence in Chicago.”
Other monuments — including ones in tribute to President Abraham Lincoln — fell under the “Revise or Add Narrative” batch.
The report indicates that more time and engagement with community members is needed before deciding how to deal with those structures. But the advisory committee did signal the city should revise the accompanying texts now, despite the monuments themselves not being prioritized for immediate action.
The city’s collection of Lincoln monuments that are up for further review includes the Standing Lincoln, Seated Lincoln, Lincoln Rail Splitter and Young Lincoln statues. The Civil War-era president hailing from Illinois has been scrutinized by some for his treatment of Indigenous people, which includes authorizing a mass execution of Dakota Sioux members.
Other monuments that the city wants to reexamine are in tribute to General John Logan, Benjamin Franklin, Leif Ericson, Robert Cavelier De La Salle and former presidents Ulysses S. Grant and George Washington. Some works depicting Indigenous people, including The Alarm, A Signal of Peace and Bull and Indian Maiden, also fall on that list.
Lastly, markers of historic events such as the Illinois Centennial monument, The Republic, Haymarket Riot monument, Indian Boundary Lines plaque, Marquette Campsite plaque and Chicago River plaque could also get another look.
In addition to its recommendations, the report includes essays discussing monuments and their place in society. One professor, John Low, rebutted the notion that monuments simply document history.
“Monuments are not innocent. We have to understand the role of monuments and other commemorative sites and activities in developing a shared narrative of the past, present and future,” Low wrote. “They can contribute to a collective memory that all too quickly becomes accepted as truth. The Chicago Monuments Project presents the opportunity to reconsider our monuments and memorials and assess whether they fairly represent the histories and peoples of Chicago.”
In a conciliatory gesture, the commission’s report also includes an essay from Sergio Giangrande, the former President of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, arguing against keeping the Columbus statues in storage and raised concerns about future monuments being taken down.
“Another huge effect of the committee’s actions is the fact the precedence will be set. What will happen to monuments of other icons or particular ethnic groups? What is the public opinion data that justifies taking them down?” he wrote. “What will be the basis of the decision to honor another with a monument? What are the historic parameters? Should these decisions be made by experts and historians rather than solely ‘community’ representatives?”
Ald. Nicholas Sposato, 38th, who served on the commission, said he hasn’t reviewed the full 73-page report yet but can already say: “I’m not a revisionist. Let’s put it that way.”
Sposato, an Italian American, added he doubts historical accounts that paint Columbus as a violent colonizer and likens him more to a “nerd” or “explorer.”
”People will be upset,” Sposato said about what would happen if the recommendation to remove the Columbus statues is fulfilled. “He got to be the guy that represents Italian Americans coming to this country.”
The recommendation to remove the Columbus statues was a relief to Les Begay, a Rogers Park resident and a citizen of the Dine’ Nation, also known as the Navajo Nation. But he said if the mayor overrides the committee, it all would have been “just for show.”
Begay, also founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Coalition of Illinois, said he doesn’t agree with past comments from Lightfoot that removing the controversial monument would be akin to erasing history. In fact, he said he feels it is his ancestors’ history that has been erased as the original inhabitants of American land.
“It tells people that we still exist, that we are in Illinois, we’re across the country and we didn’t disappear in the 1800s,” Begay said about the symbolism behind not returning the Columbus statues. “We’ve been erased from history, so I think this is a step forward.”
The mayor is not bound to follow any of the report’s recommendations.