Six Perspectives on Historic Monuments and the Battle Over Civic Space

September 29, 2020 | by Joseph G. Brin

Tensions between South Philly residents and Black Lives Matter protestors reached a boiling point in June over the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza. After two weeks of multiple, sometimes violent confrontations, the Kenney Administration deemed the situation a public safety risk on June 16 and City workers boxed up the statue. In August the Philadelphia Art Commission voted in favor of moving the statue to temporary storage until a permanent location can be determined. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Civic discourse lives in civic space. Monuments to earlier causes and notable figures, anchored for decades in our shared spaces, represent a patchwork of different eras of cultural agreement, affirmation, and prevailing sentiment. Yet, those so-called agreements and institutional beliefs, like the stone or metal they were forged in, are not immutable.

The 2,000 pound bronze monument honoring former Philadelphia Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo was removed under immense public pressure and protest this summer in the aftermath of protests denouncing the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Hundreds of Confederate generals on horseback and monuments dedicated to Christopher Columbus are also under intense scrutiny or have recently been removed. 

For as long as the Frank Rizzo statue lorded over the Municipal Services Building, Philadelphia has had a clear symbol of the city’s historic, racial divide. And yet, if a visitor to the city asked, “Who was he?,” the most honest answer they would receive is, “It depends on whom you ask.” Rizzo was, and still is, a beloved hometown hero to many in Philadelphia’s Italian American and law enforcement communities. He was also a rough and tumble figure who wielded a heavy billy club and wasn’t afraid to swing it, especially if you were Black or homosexual. Times have changed and society’s idealogical ground has shifted under Rizzo’s weighty, controversial legacy. Indeed, before its removal the Rizzo statue was already in danger of falling on its face.

Looking to our cities now, whose historical memory, monuments, and truth should remain? To answer that question, presented here are informed reflections and discussions from professional disciplines that bear on memory, historical interpretation, and the future of public monuments–public art, law, religion, sites of conscience, education, and architecture.

Penny Balkin Bach | Executive Director and Chief Curator, Association for Public Art

Penny Balkin Bach,  Executive Director and Chief Curator for the Association for Public Art, describes herself being “swamped” these days. “We are the first public art association in the United States, established in 1872. I am part of a network of curators and professionals who oversee public art programs across the country. We recently had a Zoom call with about 50 people discussing current concerns around systematic racism, representation, and public art. There is a thoughtful dialog going on worldwide. I think we need to accept that there is nothing in society that everyone agrees on. Consensus is a word that is out of place in this discussion. I think we should replace it with respectful conversation and exchange. As a society, we had symbols before we had words. That is why iconography matters.”

Joseph G. Brin:  In your recent discussions about public monuments with colleagues nationally, did you discover that Philadelphia’s situation is significantly different?

Penny Balkin Bach: My colleagues look to Philadelphia for leadership because we have experience on our side, given our historic collection, detailed archives, interpretive projects, and the protections and processes through the City’s Public Art Program, Art Commission, and Historical Commission. The group was particularly interested in our pioneering program from the 1990s, New Land Marks: public art, community and the meaning of place, which created a methodology to bring together artists and community groups to plan and create new works for Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

JGB: What would be a primer of creative, alternative ways to dispose of or retain a threatened monument and to tell a proper story whether or not it remains on public display?

PBB: We should be reexamining, fact-checking, and expanding the narratives to include diverse viewpoints. It’s time for a civil and civic dialogue that actually helps to expose the racist truths behind some monuments, rather than conceal. Then the process for disposition can determined. Each case is unique and should be determined based on the circumstances of its intentions and acquisition history.

To remove or retain is binary and simplistic, as there are many options that can be explored: a monument could be destroyed, removed, relocated, replaced, stored, donated, explained, reinterpreted or re-contextualized. The aPA’s multi-platform Museum Without Walls program, for example, offers unique histories and multiple voices that are not typically expressed on outdoor permanent sculpture signage. Even if a sculpture is removed, we should not erase the story with all its blemishes and consider adding signage, audio, video, projections or other emerging technologies.

George B. Shepherd | Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law

In a recent interview with CNN, George B. Shepherd, a lawyer and author who specializes in corporate, education, and economic law and civil procedure stated, “This is how it should be: memorials should exist for evil’s victims, not for evil’s perpetrators. A country cannot begin to cleanse itself of evil while maintaining shrines to those who committed it.”

Joseph G. Brin: You addressed the current controversy of Georgia’s Stone Mountain tribute to the Confederacy. If such monuments reinforce insidious evils, as you have maintained, what would be the best way to counteract their destructive force?

George B. Shepherd: They should all be removed as occurs in other countries.  The United States should recognize that Confederate monuments are oppressive glorifications of racist white supremacy.  During the Jim Crow period they were erected in order to keep African Americans in their place. Just as Germany has removed all swastikas and statues of Hitler and leading Nazi figures, our country should remove monuments to racist traitors who sought to oppress African Americans.

JGB: How do you respond to Southerners who say that if you erase a monument you erase their history?

GBS: Confederate monuments are artifacts of the racist Jim Crow period, like the signs that read “Whites Only.”  Perhaps it might be legitimate to put them into a museum dedicated to this racist period–a Museum of Racism or a Museum of White Supremacy. However, such museums might become magnets for white supremacists, like shrines to racism.  To avoid creating such shrines to Nazism, Germany has destroyed its public swastika monuments and statues of Nazi leaders. The U.S. should probably do that, too.

The only history that these Confederate statues involve is their use to inflict racist oppression. Maybe we should save one or two statues of Robert E. Lee. But let’s melt down the rest of these symbols of
racist oppression just as we have removed most “Whites Only” signs.

JGB: How do you expect the current, national outrage towards various monuments to read in future high school textbooks and law school manuals?

GBS: My guess is that historians will view the last 50 years with puzzlement.  At the same time that we were adopting federal civil rights laws to fight discrimination we were allowing communities to
erect monuments that were designed to enforce white supremacy and, later, even creating new ones.  Historians will recognize that, during this period, the country’s commitment to ending racism was incomplete. 

The federal government passed laws to eliminate racism and discrimination, but some states and communities resisted these efforts. Confederate monuments were some of the tools that racist governments used in this resistance. It is wonderful now that Confederate names and monuments
are being revealed for what they are: tools of racist oppression.

Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler | College educator and Senior Pastor, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

“Symbols matter,” said Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler, reflecting on the legacy of writer, educator, abolitionist, and Black bishop Richard Allen. A bronze statue Allen stands adjacent to Mother Bethel AME where Tyler is Senior Pastor. Mother Bethel was established in 1787 and was the first national African-American church and a former stop on the Underground Railroad. It is listed by the Department of Interior as a National Historic Landmark.

Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler: We try to tell what it means to be an institution builder. Richard Allen, born a slave, is the ultimate expression of self-determination. I understand that the Rocky statue drives tourism, but Rocky never existed. The fact that Philadelphia doesn’t have a single bridge named for a person who is not white should get our attention. Most of these things begin with commentary that leads to action. I called for the removal of the Rizzo statue. You begin with the symbols and now the substance.

I don’t think you lose anything by taking those statues down. How do we teach the more full story in elementary schools, in middle schools, and in high schools? That is the greater struggle, the greater fight that we have. People make policy. If children are misguided, that is what they inherit whether the statue is there or not.

Ashley Nelson | Communications Director, International Coalition for Sites of Conscience.

ICSC is a unique, worldwide network–300 members in 65 countries–founded in 1999 and committed to reconciling memory, conflict, and commemoration. As a result of ICSC’s recent engagement in an extended, impassioned community negotiation, a stone slave auction block anchored to a street corner in Fredericksburg, Virginia for 171 years now sits in the Fredericksburg Area Museum. 

Joseph G. Brin: Have you been surprised at your ability to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts? What have you learned about resolving such sites that might be transferable to groups and cities?

Ashley Nelson: This is an important question and a very real one today. While there is so much polarizing rhetoric in politics and the media today, we still believe that people can come together across differences for the betterment of all. While the goal is systemic change, it is people and their relationships with one another that inspire such long-lasting change. This takes time and processes. We have found that lasting impact comes only after trust is established in communities. That trust requires platforms for people of all backgrounds to share their experiences and the willingness of those people to listen, reflect on their own biases, and be open to change.

We have worked with people on different sides of conflicts in many regions of the world. Often these are groups that have been raised to not trust each other or perhaps one group has even caused profound harm to the other. Nevertheless: they all know pain–pain that, if tapped into carefully, can ultimately be understood in a collective sense. Once that shared experience is understood, transformation can begin to happen. People stop seeing things as this or that, or in “us vs them” dichotomies.

Instead, they, hopefully, begin to see others as human, with hopes, dreams and the right to achieve them, just like themselves. A grey area emerges. That is not to say every difference or disagreement will be magically washed away, but if we can all start to see each other as humans who deserve to live in peace in a just society that is a huge step forward.

We always start at a holistic, grassroots level. We have found that if change doesn’t come from the ground up, it doesn’t generally come and it almost never lasts.

JGB: Do you suggest that cities  like Philadelphia adopt your approach to handle multiple memorial sites even before there is a specific conflict?

AN: There is no one prescription for a process that would apply to every city. Generally, though, the process needs to reflect the goal. If the goal is equity, the process need to be equitable and lift up voices. If the goal is diversity, the process needs to include a broad range of people. If the goal is to build an anti-racist city, the process must prioritize race and seek anti-racist paths consistently.

JGB: Your work for the Fredrickburg Area Museum with the slave auction block seems like a breakthrough, especially in these times. Was it so for you or is that exactly the kind of problem that ICSC was formed for?

AN: There is tremendous satisfaction in watching any group come together with a shared, courageous vision to face history with transparency and create peaceful futures. Fredericksburg was certainly that.

While much of the current conversation has focused on the destruction of statues and monuments, situations like Fredericksburg remind us of is that reimagining monuments and the spaces that elevate them is, at its best, a generative, creative act. Indeed, we have found that the process of transforming a space has greater potential for lasting impact at multiple levels in a community when it is understood as a creative rather than a destructive experience. Transformation isn’t just about reshaping a physical structure. It is about building processes that connect the transformation of the monument to the transformation of underlying inequitable systems.

 JGB: Transitional justice is something you offer assistance on, but doesn’t it really describe your essential mission? 

AN: We work with survivors in many conflict and post-conflict settings to address a range of needs, including offering psycho-social support, training in documentation, and supporting them in memorialization projects that can play a key role in helping individuals and communities overcome past cycles of violence and heal from them. All our work uses memory as a springboard to more peaceful, equitable societies.

Ian E. Sampson | Cartoonist, storyteller, college educator, and Southern expat

Ian E. Sampson grew up in the South and now lives and teaches in the Northeast. Although not a willing spokesperson for Southern expats, Sampson, a cartoonist and storyteller, contemplates the cultural and racial symbolism in our midst.

Joseph G. Brin: Does growing up in the South and now living in the North give you a sharper lens on both the positive and negative messages beaming from public monuments?

Ian E. Sampson: I lived in Richmond, Virginia for a long time. I used to come out on my front porch to smoke in the morning (when I smoked) and got a clear view of Stonewall Jackson’s horse’s ass. One morning I awoke thinking I had been dreaming of someone whistling “Dixie.” But, no, it was an army of reenactors marching past my house actually playing “Dixie” on the fife and drum.

This storytelling business is awfully fraught. It turns out that the wrong story can kill people and ruin a land for generations. I was raised in Alabama where I was taught that racism was basically a thing of the past that didn’t warrant speaking about. I remember in 5th grade kids standing around talking about how the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery. That’s because of the carefully-built mythology of Southern heritage that conveniently elides the question of race and treats slavery as an unfortunate by-product of an otherwise noble culture.

JGB: What would you have the City of Philadelphia do with the removed Rizzo statue and the history lessons it embodied?

IES: Not all art survives, and that’s fine. My tendency is to find a way to make everyone happy, but I think in the case of these racist monuments, they have to go. Even if you contextualize them, they remain monumental. They are inherently impressive. I don’t know how you can recontextualize them without retaining some piece of their toxic influence.

Rizzo seems like a footnote of history. If there’s any lesson he could teach us, it would be that the South was not, and is not, the only area of the country beset by racism. But a positive monument could teach the same lesson, maybe to the victims of racism or heroes of abolition.

Emanuel Kelly, FAIA | Architect

Emanuel Kelly, a practicing architect in Philadelphia for 40 years, has worked on the Independence Mall site reinterpreting the foundation remains of the President’s House. George Washington lived in the executive mansion from 1790 to 1797 when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital.

Emanuel Kelly: History is always in a process of being reinterpreted by society, both collectively and individually. There has to be a conversation. There’s so much rage now. One things spills into another.

In regard to Confederate monuments, they should all come down because they took up arms against the nation. It was traitorous. The Founding Fathers all had slaves except for Adams. Yet, we wouldn’t be a nation without those who made the compromises they had to. A solution is to state, succinctly in a plaque, the tragedy of the other side.

With the President’s House we had an advisory committee of 19 individuals who had never worked together before. They all wanted different things. Community leaders, advocates, historians. The funding stated that the memorial must be about the house and those who lived in it and the nine slaves that Washington owned. There was over a year of listening, presenting, listening, presenting, before coming to a conclusion and an agreement. The names of those slaves are now on the wall.

The Rizzo statue? I was glad it came down. It was accosted immediately. Young people are now reinterpreting the city. All that heat and energy is still there.

The Columbus statue in Marconi Park? The Italian Americans finally had a hero. There are mixed characters in the discussion of memorializing historical figures. Leave the monument up, but change the narrative.

Tragedy is part of history. We put that out there so future generations can learn about it.


About the Author

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, documentary filmmaker, photographer and writer based in Philadelphia. He has covered Philadelphia architecture, preservation, design and culture. His residential architecture website can be seen HERE and photography website HERE. Brin's new film, "A String of Pearls: The Small Miracles of Charles Middleberg," is the story of a childhood witness and survivor of the Holocaust, with trailer seen HERE.

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