Statues of Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley, as well as the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, were among the 40 public statues and other commemorative markers identified on a list from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration on Wednesday for further review as part of “a racial healing and historical reckoning project” started last summer.
The city launched a website on Wednesday detailing the controversial monuments flagged by the mayor’s commission on monuments. Other statues on the list included a police memorial tied to the Haymarket Riot and a statue of Leif Ericson at Humboldt Park.
Disputes over the city’s Columbus statues erupted last summer between protesters and police, including a violent clash at Grant Park. Lightfoot removed the statues but said the move would only be “temporary.”
Not all 40 monuments will be taken down, city officials said, but they merit further discussion. It remains unclear whether the city will bring back the Columbus statues, as Lightfoot suggested.
“This project is a powerful opportunity for us to come together as a city to assess the many monuments and memorials across our neighborhoods and communities — to face our history and what and how we memorialize that history,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “Given the past year and in particular the past summer that made clear history isn’t past, it is essential that residents are a part of this conversation.”
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Even before the unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, cities around the country were grappling with controversies over monuments that celebrate Columbus, Confederate leaders and other historical figures. Some have been marked with graffiti. Others have been pulled down.
Activists have urged that public art do a better job of representing a broad spectrum of American life, something Lightfoot said the Chicago effort will accomplish.
As part of that, city officials said the Chicago Monuments Project seeks ideas from individual artists and community groups “for the development of new monuments that rethink the place, purpose and permanence of monuments in our public spaces.” The deadline is April 1.
Throughout the country, activists have criticized cities for not honoring women and people of color. In Chicago, women and minorities aren’t altogether absent from the city’s public art, but they are underrepresented.
A statue of the prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks was unveiled on the South Side in 2018. And the Harold Washington Library Center contains multiple artistic tributes to Chicago’s first Black mayor. The city renamed Congress Parkway for journalist Ida B. Wells in 2018.
Other cities have used temporary sculptures to explore the issue of expanding representation.
The issue came to a head in Chicago last July, when activists forcibly attempted to remove the prominent statue of Columbus in Grant Park, leading to violent clashes between police and protesters. Nearly a week later, Lightfoot took down Columbus statues in Grant Park and Little Italy. Lightfoot later removed a lesser-known statue in the South Chicago neighborhood.
Columbus has been condemned by activists around the country who point to the Italian explorer’s mistreatment of Indigenous people after he landed in the Americas in 1492.
Many Italian Americans prize the statues of the explorer as an expression of their mainstream American identity.
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