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Public spaces: How to consider removing a statue

I propose we reconsider our public spaces every 40 years.

toppled statue of Christopher Columbus
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi
State Patrol officers stand guard as employees of Twin Cities Transport and Recovery work to clear the toppled statue of Christopher Columbus on June 10.
On June 10, a crowd of people gathered at the Minnesota Capitol and toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus. Coming in the wake of the George Floyd killing and an ongoing nationwide contest over the meaning of how we should organize public space, the aftermath of this event continues to reverberate. I am hopeful that from this debate will come a better understanding of how to create public space that is, according to Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, “inclusive, engaged and reflective of what it means to build a Capitol that is truly the People’s House.”

The statue was a meaningful project conceived of in 1927 by Minnesotans of Italian heritage and installed adjacent to the state Capital on Oct. 12, 1931, the same year that Columbus Day was made a state holiday.

According to historian Heather Cox Richardson, “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially instituted Columbus Day in 1934, but the idea for the holiday rose in the 1920s, when the Knights of Columbus tried to undercut the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan by emphasizing the role minorities had played in America. In the early 1920s, the organization published three books in a ‘Knights of Columbus Racial Contributions’ series, including The Gift of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois.”

Columbus Day, in other words, was part of an antiracist movement by Catholics who sought to carve a space for themselves, and other minority cultures, in a nation dominated by bigoted white Protestants.

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One of the things we have learned since that early June day is that Minnesota does not have a process for removing a statue. It should.

For years, people have questioned the Columbus statue, and for years they were told to follow the legal process. Indeed, just before the statue came down, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said “state officials ‘will be out there to meet with the group and explain to them the legal process for getting a statue removed.” That same day, Gov. Tim Walz released a statement saying that protesters should have followed a formal process to have the statue removed.

By June 12, it had become clear that Minnesota does not have a legal process for removing public art. Paul Mandell, executive secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, which is responsible for approving any changes to the Capitol grounds, said the board is planning to meet to talk about what to do next because “we don’t have any process for how to handle removals; we’ve never done this before.”

Jeff Kolnick
Jeff Kolnick
As we develop such a process, allow me to weigh in how this might happen. Years ago, my friend and colleague Michelle Deardorff introduced me to a framework for understanding American democracy. She said that in a nation full of people, a democracy is like a room where some people can exercise the power of citizenship, and others, who are not in the room, are denied the rights, responsibilities, and power of citizenship.

When the United States began, most people were not in the room. Property qualifications restricting the right to vote were widespread, and except for New Jersey, which allowed propertied women to vote until 1807, the franchise was restricted to men. In addition, depending on the state, there were age qualifications, and legal restrictions that prevented aliens, migrants, African Americans, Native Americans, paupers, and felons from voting.

Over time, through sustained movements, often lasting generations and involving everything from war to widespread civil disobedience, many of these restrictions have been lifted or revised. The struggle for voting rights is not over, and there has been considerable backsliding since Shelby County v Holder (2013), but in 2020, the right to vote has been greatly expanded since the founding.

Now most of us are in the room. Trouble is, the furniture is still from the 18th century, all the seats are taken, and the room hasn’t been redecorated in 233 years. That’s were we are today, a 21st-century democracy with 18th-century thinking. As we figure out how to redecorate and remove public art, I propose we reconsider our public spaces every 40 years.  We could assemble a panel of citizens, representative of our diverse communities, and including experts in public history, to consider public spaces from the municipal to the state levels. We should examine such things as place names, monuments, and art installations on public grounds.

No doubt, much will remain the same, but having conversations about what to remove, what to add, where to provide historical context, and what to continue to venerate, will be healthy for our democracy.

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Regularly scheduled conversations about our shared history and public spaces will cause us to learn our history, reflect on what we value, remove us from our ideological silos, expose us to our neighbors who have different perspectives and experiences, and force us to find common ground on the profound questions about who we’ve been as a state and nation, who we are, and who we want to become.

These conversations will not be easy, but democracy is not easy. It requires hard conversations, finding points of agreement, and remembering that we are all Americans. Just maybe, such conversations will help repair the divisions that threaten us. I can assure you that ignoring problems does not make them go away.

Jeff Kolnick, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his own.

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