Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is taking heat for not following the lead of other cities that removed their statues of Christopher Columbus in response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The mayor’s critics do have a point. The great explorer inexcusably exploited the labor of enslaved Native Americans.
He sent a number back to be sold on the slave markets of Spain. Others he forced to labor without compensation in the various enterprises by which he intended to profit from his voyages to the Caribbean islands.
Could anything be more repugnant to the ideal of freedom to which our country was committed from birth? The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are entitled to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But there is the rub: How can we use those words to justify removing Columbus statues? They were written by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder.
By day he penned lofty sentiments; by night he took to bed Sally Hemings, a Black woman who had little choice in the matter. She was among the more than 600 slaves Jefferson owned.
At least Columbus wasn’t a hypocrite. He was a nimble-footed entrepreneur. He sold his project to Spain’s king and queen by promising them a route to the fabulous riches of Asia. But he didn’t find much material wealth where he landed and switched his pitch to reporting that the natives, being obedient by nature, were well-suited for slavery.
So were it up to me, I’d rename Chicago’s Jefferson Street and leave the Columbus statues alone. The other way around gets dicey. If you nix the statue in downtown Chicago’s Grant Park, wouldn’t the park have to be renamed? Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and U.S. president, was married to a woman who owned slaves. His father-in-law gave Grant a slave, whom he freed just before the war.
But belatedly establishing a principal that slaveholders shouldn’t be publicly honored requires changing a lot of street signs. Other slaveholding presidents for whom Chicago streets are named include: George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James Polk, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.
But why stop there? Douglas Park, named for Stephen Douglas, is an oasis of green in Lawndale, a largely Black neighborhood on the West Side. In 1858, Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were rival candidates to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate and engaged in a series of debates across the state.
Slavery was the issue of the day, and Douglas lambasted Lincoln for opposing it. Of our country, Douglas said: “It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.”
To which Lincoln replied: “He is blowing out the moral lights around us, when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them.”
That exchange makes me proud that Chicago has a park named for Lincoln. But one named for Douglas, who won the Senate seat, is patently shameful.
The problem is, where do you stop? McKinley Park is named for President William McKinley, who got down on his knees and prayed for guidance when the inhabitants of the Philippines revolted against their Spanish rulers.
“We could not leave them to themselves,” he decided. “They were unfit for self government.” So declaring their homeland our colony, he sent in American troops who killed some 20,000 Filipinos who resisted McKinley’s logic.
And so on.
Given that erasing all monuments of racism is impractical, it’s tempting to pick one, like a Columbus statue, to stand for all of them. Chronologically that makes sense. His transgressions came first. Yet precisely because that is facile, it is wrong.
It would be scapegoating — a practice that echoes the ancient Israelites’ custom of assigning their sins to a young goat and sending it off into the wilderness.
The indelible lesson of the Black Lives Matter movement is that racism is systemic. It’s not the offspring of any one person. It has no birthday. It has lots of mothers and fathers.
Washington was one. So, too, were Jefferson, Madison, Douglas and, yes, Columbus.
Racism won’t be vanquished by changing street signs or removing statues. So let them be a reminder of our long amnesia to the painful chapters of our nation’s history. The city should publish a balance sheet with entries of slaveholders that have a statue or a street or park named for him.
It would alert visitors and schoolchildren to each of their moral deficiencies as well as their laudable accomplishments. For example, George Washington had 317 slaves and won us our liberty from England.
(Ron Grossman is a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune.)