Erin Thompson's "Smashing Statues": Tear 'Em All DownHistorians in the News
tags: memorials, statues, Confederacy, art history, public history
IN AN EARLY chapter of Smashing Statues, art historian Erin L. Thompson takes on the Freedman’s Memorial, which has stood on Capitol Hill since 1876. The sculpture depicts a formerly enslaved man crouched at Abraham Lincoln’s feet. Below them, in large block print, reads the word “Emancipation.” Lincoln is gifting this man his freedom.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the monument’s paternalistic portrayal caused some protesters to demand that it be taken down. Trump responded by issuing an executive order against “extremists […] ignorant of our history” and installing a fence around the statue. “Not going to happen here,” he told the press. That protesters wanted to topple a statue of Lincoln became a talking point for conservatives who claimed activists had gone too far. It marked a divide that Trump exploited: between those willing to accept the removal of some Confederate monuments and those arguing that the entire artistic portrayal of American history must be reconsidered.
Thompson, who teaches at John Jay College and calls herself “America’s only professor of art crime,” argues for reconsidering it all. Her book is the first from a major American publisher to take a comprehensive look at United States monuments after the Floyd-inspired protests. The historical context she presents for the Freedman’s Memorial is as damning as one could imagine. Thompson details how the project was funded by recently freed African Americans but designed exclusively by whites. Thomas Ball, the Massachusetts sculptor who was commissioned to create the statue, was so bigoted he couldn’t tolerate being in the same room with the Black man hired as a model for the ex-slave. Instead, he based the face of the kneeling man on Archer Alexander, who was never handed his freedom by a white man but freed himself twice. Ball based the kneeling ex-slave’s physique, flatteringly, on his own.
None of this was lost on Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the monument’s dedication. In his speech, Douglass criticized the depiction of a cowering Black man, but his critique was omitted from newspaper reports. The omission prompted Douglass to write a letter, published days later in The National Republican, where he reiterated, “What I want to see before I die is […] a monument representing the negro […] erect on his feet like a man.” This wouldn’t happen — in Washington, DC, at least — for 122 years, when the African American Civil War Memorial, which honors the more than 200,000 Black soldiers who fought in the war, was dedicated in 1998.
In this and other examples, the upshot of Smashing Statues is to show that the whole damn system is guilty. Thompson leaves no doubt that even our nation’s proudest moments are shot through with bigoted ideology. She makes a compelling case that equality is not achievable so long as our monuments convey overt messages of white supremacy and so long as slave-owning white men’s names remain attached to buildings, parks, roads, and bridges. In so doing, she answers the question that often consumes public debate: how far back, and how deep, must we go? All the way and as deep as possible is Thompson’s unequivocal reply.
A second question, arguably more important and more difficult to answer, asks how dismantling racist monuments relates to dismantling institutional racism. Obviously, it is easier to take down a statue than it is to repair the racist ideas that put it there in the first place, and it can be hard to see how accomplishing the former encourages the latter.