A Monumental Tumble
When statues fall, what will rise in their place?
BY ALANA SCHREIBER
First, I heard the alarms. I was between bites of a sandwich on the steps of Jameson Hall when the blaring sirens disrupted the hub of student activity. Next came the smell. Pungent garbage cans were emptied into classrooms, followed by the spray of fire extinguishers adding to the mess. And then there were the rallying cries of student protesters: ?Fees Must Fall!?
As an exchange student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in the fall of 2017, I was observing the chaos with naive excitement and, I admit, a little fear, but most of my South African classmates, seasoned by years of demonstrations, were quick to roll their eyes. ?Not the protests again,? one groaned.
I soon learned that this protest was mild compared to the ones the school had experienced in recent years. Like many stories we hear today, this one began with a statue.
The University of Cape Town, or UCT, as it’s better known, has long been regarded as one of the top universities on the African continent. The campus is a picturesque, almost fairytale-like college setting, with old buildings wedged into the side of Devil?s Peak, offering a mountain view from one side and an Atlantic Ocean seascape from the other. And until 2015, the university housed a statue of Cecil Rhodes that sat smack dab in the middle of campus.
(Top) The statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town in South Africa was unveiled in 1934. Courtesy Gettysburg News Network. (Bottom)?Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). Courtesy The Guardian.?
To many students, the Rhodes statue was an eyesore that represented colonization and White supremacy. While Rhodes, in part, is remembered as a 19th century British diamond magnate and founder of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, he was also an outspoken imperialist who exploited native labor in his effort to create Rhodesia (now Zambia/Zimbabwe) and the Cape Colony (now South Africa).
Or as one UCT student put it: ?His vision about Africa was just about what he could get from it and how it could serve his White supremacist?ideals. Everything he built was built on the backs of Black people.”
In March of 2015, roughly two years before I arrived on the UCT campus, a student threw human excrement onto the Rhodes statue. This gesture, offensive as it may have been to some, quickly gave birth to a new movement: Rhodes Must Fall. Students gathered on campus to protest this symbol of racism and colonialism, and after a month of demonstrations, the UCT council (a 30-member governing body of the University made up of executive officers, staff, Ministry of Education appointees, and students) relented. On April 9, 2015, the statue of Cecil Rhodes was boarded up and lifted away by a construction crew hired by the University, while a crowd roared its approval. Only the pedestal remained.
But this quick victory didn’t satisfy the protesters, in fact it enabled them. Just months after the Rhodes statue was removed, South Africa?s Ministry of Education released a plan to increase tuition to public universities by as much as to 8 percent. This plan would hit students of color the hardest’students who saw higher rates of poverty in their communities and often relied significantly on government scholarships.
So, students banded together once more with a new rallying cry: ?Fees Must Fall.?
(Top) The Cecil Rhodes statue was taken down in 2015. Courtesy The Guardian. (Bottom)?Students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa during a 2017 rally to fight rising tuition fees. Courtesy Alana Schreiber.?
That year, and in the two years that followed, student demonstrators across multiple South African universities blasted alarms, looted buildings, and effectively shut down classes for weeks at a time, demanding “free, decolonized education.?
By the time I arrived at UCT, the protests had become smaller in size and duration but, as I learned that October, they had by no means gone away. I remember waking early each morning late that month to check Twitter for updates, and finding videos of campus buses on fire, trash spread throughout academic buildings, naked demonstrators tossed into police vans, and officers roaming the campus in full riot gear. I’d then receive an email from the university stating, ?Classes are suspended for the day.?
Meanwhile, through all the protests and anguish?protests that resulted in violence, several deaths, 800 arrests, and some eventual concessions from the authorities?the Rhodes pedestal, the site where all the anger and frustration first manifested itself, remained empty. As it does, inexplicably, today.
This drama I witnessed in South Africa probably isn’t over, and it can potentially be seen as a model for what’s happening in the United States amid the uproar over the recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer. In America?s current state of rage, it makes sense that Confederate and other statues? that many believe are visible testaments to racism?are being targeted for vandalism, destruction, and removal. But what, if anything, will replace them?
(Top left) George Floyd (1973-2020). Courtesy People. (Top right)?Robert E. Lee (1807-1870). Courtesy Britannica. (Bottom) The?Robert E. Lee Memorial in Richmond, Virginia. Courtesy WUSA9.
This isn’t a minor question. According to recent news reports, more than 30 statues have been attacked by protesters or slated for removal in the last month. On June 4, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam vowed to remove the Richmond monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. This statue had, in recent weeks, been vandalized and even obscured with a projected image of George Floyd. At the same time, the city has now removed the statue of another famous Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson. And protesters have also toppled a third monument of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis.
But even for many non-Confederate symbols, history can be complicated. In San Francisco, protesters knocked down a statue of U.S. Army General Ulysses S. Grant. He was targeted because even though he led the defeat of the Confederate Army in 1865, and was later elected president, he was nevertheless a slave owner before the Civil War. In Albuquerque, a statue of Don Juan de O?ate, the founder and former Governor of the New Mexico colony who was also accused of brutally oppressing and killing native people, was vandalized and removed. And in cities such as Boston, St. Paul, Sacramento and Miami, Christopher Columbus statues have been knocked to the ground?some missing their heads. Even though he has long been credited for discovering America, protestors today argue that Columbus was an imperialist who kidnapped, enslaved, and murdered thousands of natives in the Caribbean islands.
(Top left) Stonewall Jackson (1861-1863). Courtesy Richmond Times Dispatch. (Top middle) Jefferson Davis (1808-1889). Courtesy American Battlefield Trust. (Top right) Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885). Courtesy Biography.com. (Bottom left)?Don Juan de O?ate statue (1550-1626) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Courtesy Britannica. (Bottom right)?Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). Courtesy?Biography.com.
As a result of all this iconoclasm?that is, the destruction of icons?there are more and more empty pedestals throughout the nation. It all feels new, and in a way, it is, because so many statues are falling at once. But in reality, the practice of removing statues, or simply destroying them, has long, historical precedent.
In ancient kingdoms such as Assyria, the Akkadian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, the destruction and mutilation of statues was a common practice any time one kingdom overthrew another. Statues, like the rulers themselves, could be dragged into the streets and publicly defaced. Often iconoclasm was linked to religion, as in Ancient Egypt, when a Pharaoh demanded the destruction of all sacred iconography that contradicted monotheism, or during the Protestant Reformation, when revolutionaries smashed carvings and sculptures of saints and angels throughout European churches. Iconoclasm is even present in the Bible when Moses, disgusted that his people might worship something other than their one God, destroyed the golden calf the Israelites had built.
Fast forward to July 9, 1776. As the ink was drying on the Declaration of Independence, American patriots pulled down a statue of King George III in Manhattan. Nearly 200 years later, in 1956, an estimated 100,000 protesters in Budapest, Hungary demolished an 82-foot statue of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, leaving only his boots behind, in which they placed a Hungarian flag.
(Left) King George III (1738-1820). Courtesy Biography.com. (Middle) Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Courtesy Britannica. (Right) John Breckinridge Castleman (1841-1918). Courtesy civilwarthosesurnames.com.
In ancient Rome, the practice of removing statues became so commonplace that a new term was borne: ?damnatio memoriae,? or the condemnation of memory. But unlike the Romans who hoped to erase the memories of previous rulers with whom they disagreed, today’s demonstrators are fully intent on remembering people like Lee, Columbus, and Stonewall Jackson; they?re just judging them through a modern lens. After all, King George is now remembered as the tyrant who refused to surrender his precious colonies. And Joseph Stalin is now viewed as a dictator who inflicted decades of suffering and executions of his own people. For today’s protesters, it’s time to focus on what these alleged ?heroes? in early American history were really about, and to stop exalting them in any way.
Perhaps Louisville, Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer summed it up best when he recently announced that a statue of Confederate Officer John Breckinridge Castleman was set to come down. ?Moving these statues allows us to examine our history in a new context that more accurately reflects the reality of the day,? he said. ?A time when the moral deprivation of slavery is clear.?
But again, with all of these statues coming down, what, if anything, might go up?
In Kentucky, names such as poet and novelist Wendell Berry and boxing champion Muhammed Ali are already being tossed around to replace the Castleman statue. Others argue that a memorial to Breonna Taylor, the unarmed African-American medical technician killed in her home by police during an unannounced raid in March of this year, would be more fitting. Just south of the border in Tennessee, a petition to replace all Confederate statues with tributes to singer Dolly Parton?yes, Dolly Parton?is already picking up steam.
(Top left) Wendell Berry (1834-present). Courtesy Vox. (Top right) Muhammed Ali (1942-2016). Courtesy People. (Bottom left) Breonna Taylor (1993-2020). Courtesy NPR. (Bottom right) Dolly Parton (1946-present). Courtesy The Guardian.
Since the country music star boasts a wide fan base that includes everyone from churchgoing grandmas to drag queens, a commemoration of Parton could avoid any issues of partisanship. According to Lynn Sacco, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, ?Dolly Parton is the one person in Tennessee that everyone agrees on.?
A recent Washington Post article suggested statues conveying racist overtones or history should be replaced with monuments to racism?s biggest adversaries, specifically by honoring those whose contributions have long been overlooked. The authors of the article, Sidney Blumenthal and Sean Wilentz, touted names such as abolitionists?Sarah and Angelina Grimke, voting rights activists Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hammer, and duel gay rights activist and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. They also advocated for statues depicting those who were unlawfully slain, like Medgar Evers,? the World War II veteran and NAACP director murdered by a White supremacist in his driveway in 1963. Or James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, civil rights workers who were trying to register African Americans to vote when they were killed in Mississippi in 1964.
(Top left) Sarah (1792-1873) and Angelina (1805-1879) Grimke. Courtesy?Future of Freedom Foundation. (Top right)?Ella Baker (1903-1986). Courtesy?Britannica. (Middle left)?Fannie Lou Hammer (1917-1977). Courtesy?The Resilient Sisterhood Project. (Middle right)?Bayard Rustin (1912-1987). Courtesy Biography.com. (Bottom left)?Medgar Evers (1925-1963). Courtesy NBC News. (Bottom right)?Mickey Shwerner (1939-1964), James Chaney (1943-1964), Andrew Goodman (1943-1964). Courtesy?Time.com.
And while we ponder what historical figures are apt for replacement, it might be instructive to revisit South Africa one more time.
In 2018, when the tuition demands of university protesters were finally met with some lukewarm promises to support lower income students, University of Cape Town leaders made another announcement. They vowed to rename Jameson Hall, the campus? central assembly building (where more than 4,000 students graduate each year), as Sarah Baartman Hall, in honor of a Southwest African indigenous woman of the ethnic Khoi group who was sold into slavery and dragged around Europe as part of a ?freak show? in the early 19th century. Leander Starr Jameson, the original namesake of the building, was a Scottish politician who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, confidant of Cecil Rhodes, and initiator of the ?Jameson Raid,? a botched attack by the British against the Afrikaans settlements in Southern Africa in 1895, igniting the spark to the Anglo-Boer War in 1899. In other words, Jameson initiated a turf war between two outsiders on foreign land, leading to decades of conflict and upheaval.
According to a UCT official, “Following the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in 2015, renaming Jameson Hall was a logical step. It is fitting that Baartman, a victim of colonial inhumanity, should replace a perpetrator of colonial crimes.”
(Top left)?Sarah Baartman (1789-1815). Courtesy?BBC. (Top right)?Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917). Courtesy Wikipedia.com. (Bottom left)?Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924). Courtesy Wikipedia.com. (Bottom right) Lillian Gish (1893-1993). Courtesy MassLive.com.
So, maybe the renaming of buildings and locations, as opposed to the erection of new statues, might be a starting point for the United States as well. In fact, in May of 2019, Bowling Green State University in Ohio removed the name of Lilian Gish from a campus theater. Gish was an actress who starred in the 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, regarded now as racist propaganda. A little over a year later, Monmouth University in New Jersey vowed to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from its marquee building, concluding that the former president no longer deserved the honor because of his racist views and support for segregation. Although known for establishing the League of Nations, the United Nations? precursor, Wilson also resegregated several federal agencies, wrote of his sympathies for the Ku Klux Klan, and described Southern Black people as an ?ignorant and inferior race.?? And on June 17, the University of Georgia announced plans to form a new advisory group that will reevaluate the names of all the buildings at each of the 26 schools in the university system, in an attempt to weed out racist namesakes.
New Orleans began making changes in 2017 when Mayor Mitch Landreiu vowed to remove multiple Confederate monuments throughout the city. In little over a month, four Confederate monuments came down including, most notably, a statue of Robert E. Lee at the ?Lee Circle? traffic hub. The site’s name has since returned to ?Tivoli Circle,? its moniker before the Lee statue was erected in 1884. However, while a nonprofit design group called Colloqate was commissioned to erect a new monument, the designers were, as of 2019, still taking suggestions.
Yet Mayor Landreiu admitted that getting rid of Confederate statues was only a small step in the right direction. ?If all we do is take down these monuments and don’t change the attitude that put them up, or allows them to stand without people being aware of them, then we have done nothing.?
The University of Cape Town in 2017. Sarah Baartman Hall (formerly Leander Starr Jameson Hall) sits beneath Devil’s Peak, part of the mountainous backdrop to Cape Town, South Africa. Courtesy Alana Schreiber.?
Back in Cape Town, two years after Leander Starr Jameson Hall became Sarah Baartman Hall, there’s no indication that a monument will be erected in Baartman’s honor as well. Still, her hall is the centerpiece of the UCT campus?and just a bit up the hill from where the Cecil Rhodes statue once sat. If her building had eyes, it would cast its gaze downward to meet Rhodes? dusty, old pedestal.
So yes, Cecil Rhodes fell. Sarah Baartman rose. And as monumental as those changes were in South Africa, what grew from the statue toppling proved to be even more significant. The three years that followed, during which protesters repeatedly shut down the country’s colleges to protest tuition increases that unfairly discriminated against students of color, effected change in the present, not just the past. It’s?just as likely that the removal of statues in the U.S. won’t satisfy the protesters for long either. It’s just one step in a long, exhausting, seemingly never-ending fight for justice.
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