The wave of protests in the United States and around the world that followed the murder of George Floyd included, in some places, the defacement or destruction of some pubic monuments to historical figures. For some this amounted to a long overdue removal of symbols of racism, bigotry and even genocide. For others it represented an erasure of history and desecration of sculpture. But a look at the men whose lives were memorialized in these monuments suggests the real question is why anyone would see fit to celebrate these individuals’ lives to begin with.
On Friday night, June 19, protesters in Judiciary Square in Washington, D.C., toppled and burned the statue of Confederate General Albert Pike. The protesters used rope to pull the statue off of its pedestal. In fell backward and landed in a pile of dust. Lighter fluid was then used to set it afire while the crowd chanted “no justice, no peace.” Trump, apparently watching on TV, tweeted that the DC police should have stopped the protesters and complained “These people should be immediately arrested. A disgrace to our Country.” The tweet was read aloud on a bullhorn at the scene and protesters erupted in cheers.
Albert Pike was a 19th century lawyer, author, poet, Confederate general and racist. This Confederate general was actually born and raised in Massachusetts, the descendent of colonials who had come to the area in 1635. In his twenties, he ended up in Arkansas. He started his career as a journalist and later became a lawyer.
During the Mexican-American War he joined the Regiment of Arkansas Mounted Volunteers. But he didn’t get on so well with his commanding officer and the two of them ended up in a duel. Neither of these high-ranking soldiers managed to hit their target after several shots so they gave it up. When the Civil War rolled around, Pike, who had frequently represented Native Americans in cases against the federal government, was the Confederacy’s envoy to Native Americans. In that position he negotiated a treaty with a Cherokee chief in which the Cherokees were promised a state of their own if they supported the Confederacy and if the Confederates won. PIke became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, commanding a troop of Native Americans. But he again butted heads with his commanding officer and was to be brought up on charges that his troops scalped soldiers. Pike ran off into the hills of Arkansas. After the war he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.
It is a question of some dispute among his biographers and historians as to whether Pike was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. What is not a matter of dispute is his racism. Pike was a member of the Masonic Lodge and rose to the exalted position of “Sovereign Grand Commander.” He assured that he would resign if the Masons admitted Blacks. He was also a virulent opponent of Black suffrage, quoted by one of his biographers as saying: “the white race, and that race alone shall govern the country, it is the only one that is fit to govern, and it is the only one that shall.”
And somebody erected a statue of this guy in the nation’s capital?
On the same day that the Pike statue bit the dust in Washington, a group of indigenous activists at a park in downtown Los Angeles, took a moment for a blessing, then tied a rope around the head of Junipero Serra’s statue and brought it down. It bit the dust to the sounds of cheers and drumming. On the same day in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park another statue of Serra suffered the same fate. A couple weeks later in Sacramento, a statue of Sierra was beheaded and painted red. In Ventura, Calif., they got the message and the town council voted to remove a statue of Sierra from its city hall location. At Stanford University, his name was scrubbed from campus buildings.
Junipero Serra was a Spanish priest who came to North America as a missionary and ended up being responsible for building the missions of Spanish-owned California in the late 18th century. He founded the first mission in San Diego and added nine of the eventual 21 Spanish California missions. The goal of these missions was to convert Native Americans to Christianity. They were also seen by the Spanish as a way to deter Russia from moving in on Spain’s Pacific Coast territory.
Serra had originally come to Mexico where he worked on an Indian mission. He and other Franciscans moved into what was known as Upper California after the Jesuits had been expelled from the region by the Spaniards. Serra was known for self-punishment, whipping himself with chains or pounding his chest with rocks while delivering a sermon. This apparently was a way to purify the spirit.
While Serra was building missions to save the souls of Native Californians, their population was being decimated. One reason was the syphilis that was introduced by Spanish soldiers. That was not of much concern to the missionaries. After one encounter at the San Diego mission that resulted in hostilities, Serra optimistically wrote “it seems none of them died so they can still be baptized.” Those natives who were converted were segregated from Native American society, forced to live on the mission and were subjected to forced labor. Their condition was not so different from a concentration camp.
To the Catholic Church, Serra, the ‘apostle of California’ was a saint. He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. To Native Americans in California he and the statues that memorialize him are symbols of colonialism and oppression.
Edward W. Carmack
A few weeks earlier, on May 30, protestors in Nashville, Tenn., took down the statue of Edward W. Carmack, an early 20th century politician, journalist and racist. Among those applauding was Taylor Swift who noted “Taking down statues isn’t going to fix centuries of systematic oppression, violence and hatred that Black people have had to endure, but it might bring us one small step closer to making ALL Tennesseans and visitors to our state feel safe–not just the white ones.”
Carmack served two terms in the U.S. House of Representative and one in the Senate, from 1901 to 1907. As a journalist he started out with the Nashville Democrat, became editor-in-chief of the Nashville American and later editor of the Memphis Commercial and Nashville Tennessean. His most notable activity as a journalist was his attacks on Ida B. Wells who at the time had launched an anti-lynching campaign in her paper, Free Speech. One of the most notable incidents was in 1892 when Wells wrote extensively about the mob lynching of three black store owners whose main crime seems to have been competing with a white store owner. Carmack urged his readers to retaliate against the “black wench.” The Free Press offices were raided and destroyed and Wells likely only saved herself by being out of town. She stayed away after that.
Carmack came to an end in 1908 when he attempted to kill another publishing rival, Duncan Brown Cooper. Instead he wounded Cooper’s son, who returned the fire and killed him.
How in the world did anyone think this guy should be celebrated with a public statue? Turns out it was the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement behind it. As a politician, Carmack was a prohibitionist. And the temperance folks in Tennessee thought him a Prohibition martyr. It has been suggested that the most suitable replacement for the toppled Carmack statue would be one of Ida B. Wells.
Meanwhile over in England, a demonstration in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement was taking place in the town of Bristol. They used a rope to bring down a bronze statue of Edward Colston. Some knelt on the neck of the statue for eight minutes. It was then rolled down to the harbor and dumped in the water.
Colston was a successful English merchant who later became known for his philanthropy. The problem is where that money came from. The slave trade. Colston was a member of the Royal Aftrica Company from 1680 to 1692 when he sold his shares to William III. He was deputy governor for part of that time. The Royal Africa Company held a monopoly in England on trading with Africa’s west coast. The commodities they traded in included gold, silver, ivory and slaves.
It has been estimated that while Colston was with the company some 84,000 Africans, including women and children, were forcibly transported to the Americas. Another 19,000 are believed to have died during the journey. The company branded the enslaved Africans with “RAC” on their chests.
The statue resulted from his philanthropy, donating to schools and hospitals in Bristol and London, where he worked. But, as a petition circulated among the citizens of Bristol states: “Whilst history should not be forgotten, these people who benefited from the enslavement of individuals do not deserve the honour of a statue. This should be reserved for those who bring about positive change and who fight for peace, equality and social unity.”