Monument Fight Expands Beyond Confederate Statues

Aug 30, 2017

Confederate monuments have been coming down around the country, including the one formerly on Ward Parkway in Kansas City, Missouri. But, with the current political turmoil, the scope of monuments coming in for new scrutiny is expanding fast.

The fight over Confederate statues got Bill Savage thinking about his own hometown.

“And I thought to myself, 'What does Chicago got that’s like that?',” recalls Savage. “And then instantly, within a fraction of a second, I thought, 'Well, we don’t have any Confederate generals, but we’ve got Italo Balbo’s souvenir'.”

Savage is talking about an ancient Roman column near Soldier Field honoring Italo Balbo. He was a daring Italian pilot, who enjoyed a hero’s welcome in Chicago, after leading a squadron of sea planes there for the World’s Fair in 1933. The column was a gift, one from Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Patrick McWilliams, attending a recent protest against the monument, says it needs to be removed, and that the city should rename Balbo Drive running through Grant Park.

“We think these monuments, similar to the Confederate monuments, are part and parcel of the same movement of white supremacy in America and they all need to come down,” says McWilliams.

Some in Chicago, especially those in its large Italian American community, argue Balbo’s best remembered as a pioneering aviator, and not as the ruthless Fascist he was as well. Chicago’s Balbo tributes have come under fire before. But, the very existence of the monument came as a shock to protester Lucia Blanchet.

“I mean, I think a lot of people are saying, 'I didn’t even know it was there.' I didn’t know it was there either, but it is there,” says Blanchet. 

People are discovering new objections to old monuments from coast to coast. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered a 90-day review of all public monuments, looking for “symbols of hate”. In San Francisco, petitioners want to remove a historical statue near City Hall where a Native American slumps at the feet of a Spanish cowboy and a priest.

“These particular monuments have become toxic to people,” says Mark Elliot, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

"Were as they were tolerable before. Now, all of the sudden, this is a way to fight back, and answer back in this very divisive moment we’re living through,” Elliot says.

Elliot says that sensitivity to oppressive symbolism is running high, and that once benign monuments can take on a sinister patina.

“Since the election of Donald Trump, there’s been a sense of empowerment of white supremacists, and anti-Semitic groups, and there’s a reaction to that,” says Elliot.

In Kansas City, Steve Kraske, who serves on the editorial board of The Kansas City Star and hosts KCUR’s Up to Date, touched off a debate when he suggested renaming J.C. Nichols Fountain, the big, circular fountain with the equestrian statuary near the Country Club Plaza.

J.C. Nichols is known as an inventive developer, who gave Kansas City the Country Club Plaza and beautifully laid out neighborhoods. But Nichols also pioneered the use of “restrictive covenants,” written stipulations theoretically barring African-Americans from buying or renting homes in his subdivisions. That’s why the Kansas City Democratic Socialists of America launched a drive to have his name removed from Kansas City’s most famous fountain, and why Bri Baker, who was protesting near the fountain recently, also wants the city to remove Nichols's name from J.C. Nichols Parkway.

“[It's] just kind of waking up and looking around us, and seeing that we’re surrounded by monuments that are celebrating people that we should not be celebrating,” says Baker.

Standing next to Baker, Toni Ford agrees that the public tributes to Nichols don’t reflect shared civic values.

“If this is supposed to be public, it should be up to us as a people, to come out and say, hey we don’t want this as part of Kansas City,” says Baker.

But some are taking their out their anger at monuments directly. Last week, a man took a sledgehammer to America’s oldest monument to Christopher Columbus in Baltimore, Maryland. A narrator in a YouTube video of the vandalism calls both Columbus and George Washington “genocidal terrorists” as pieces of the 225-year-old monument fall to the ground.

“Christopher Columbus monuments across the country are being vandalized, and wrongfully so,” says Kevin Caira, President of the Sons of Italy’s Commission for Social Justice.

Caira argues that Confederate statues, honoring people who fought against the United States, don’t belong in the public square. But he sees debate over Columbus as an attempt to erase history. While Columbus was brutal to Native Americans, Caira says he was still an important historic figure, and that it’s unfair to judge him by current standards.

“It was 525 years ago that he sailed to the Americas. A lot people want to impose the 21st century law on a 15th century person,” says Caira.

Baltimore took down four Confederate statues recently, but it’s got no plans to remove the Columbus monument; it’s just protecting it, for now. 

The Balbo Monument in Chicago is under review by the Parks Board there. The San Francisco Art Commission is trying to figure out what to do with the controversial Pioneer Monument there.

Meantime the number of monuments coming under fresh scrutiny is on the rise, as Americans struggle to agree on the shared values they want their monuments to reflect. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the initiation of a petition drive to change the name of J.C. Nichols Fountain to Steve Kraske, rather than the Kansas City DSA.

Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.