Controversial statues ought to all include context | Opinion

By Raymond A. Schroth

When I taught at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, I would take long bike rides,  just looking for surprises  and  getting the feel of the neighborhoods.  I  love statues  that both educate the public and re-enforce values that strengthen the community.

A  major discovery was a mysterious statue of a dead young man next to the front door of a public high school..

He was a soldier, but his shirt was gone and his pants were shredded. He leans back against the trunk of a tree, head tilted, mouth open, eyes closed, while his left arm dangles  and  he holds his right across his bare stomach.  Around his waist, an ammunition belt.

The brass dedication plaques are probably stolen by vandals who will sell  the metal. No citation from an alderman, mayor, or congressman tells us what the statue means. In what war and  for what cause did he die? Where is the eulogy embedded in bronze: “We shall never forget our eternal debt to Private (unknown) whom we memorialize today?”

Statues are meant to inspire. But recently a flood of  news stories argue that certain statues have become controversial and should be destroyed.

This statue by an unknown author of an unknown soldier is in front of Lincoln High School in Jersey City. (Photo by Raymond A. Schroth)

The biggest fights focus on Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus. Both are popular heroes, but now charged with racism.

Robert E. Lee both owned slaves and is a “traitor”  in that in the Civil War, which was caused by slavery, he was loyal to Virginia, not to the United States.  Journalists Jason Berry of New Orleans and Paul Moses explain that the Civil War statues  did not grow out of the war itself but were part of a later 19th-early 20th century movement  arguing that  the war was not about slavery  but a “lost cause” battle for their way of life.   It was a time when  schools were re-segregated and  blacks assassinated and de-franchised.

Explaining why he took down Lee, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked how African-American  parents can explain  to their 5th grade daughter whether the statue of Lee was “there to encourage her.” 

In September alone vandals attacked four statues of Christopher Columbus in New York. In response Mayor Bill DeBlasio appointed a committee to evaluate the city’s statues: How many, if any, should go. The main target is the towering 76-foot   monument at Columbus Circle, erected in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’  discovery  of the Americas. Recent celebrations have raised issues of his brutal treatment of Native Americans. In short he is held responsible for today’s racial discrimination.

A priest testified in a 16th century investigation that  Columbus permitted Indians to be taken as slaves  to be bought and sold  rather than be baptized, and attractive boys  and girls were  made slaves rather than converted.  All Indians on the island, said Columbus, belonged to him. They were no longer…

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