This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated conductor of the Underground Railroad. Like most enslaved Black Americans, she did not know her date of her birth so we remember Harriet on the day of her death, March 10, 1913.
November is Native American Heritage Month. The contributions of Native Americans were erased by the false narrative that Christopher Columbus “discovered” land on which Indigenous People have lived for thousands of years. Public memorials to Columbus are sites of resistance. The movement to remove Christopher Columbus statues gained momentum in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. According to a Washington Post and MIT Data + Feminism Lab analysis, at least 40 monuments to Columbus have been removed since 2018, the majority of which were taken down in 2020 and 2021. Their data show that 130 memorials are still standing, including two in Philadelphia – the Columbus Monument at Penn’s Landing and the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza.
Indigenous People joined Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Native Americans and African Americans have a shared history of resistance. Indigenous People and African Americans also share ancestors. Notables of Afro-Indigenous ancestry include sculptor Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis, jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham and Jimi Hendrix.
This shared history and heritage came to mind when I read George Bochetto, attorney for Friends of Marconi Plaza, asked, “Why can’t they put up another statue right here to honor Indigenous People?” In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I proposed a third way:
Rather than remove the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, George Bochetto, attorney for Friends of Marconi Plaza, recently suggested erecting an additional statue to honor Indigenous People? You let everybody celebrate their ethnicity,” he said. My response: Why not? Why not tell the full story of the ancestral land of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, on which the Columbus statue sits, and the layered histories of Marconi Plaza?
The recently released National Monument Audit produced by Monument Lab found that only Abraham Lincoln (193) and George Washington (171) have more public statues than Christopher Columbus (149).
At the height of the George Floyd protests, calls grew louder for Philadelphia to remove the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza. So far, Mayor Jim Kenney has been stymied in his plan to remove the statue which has been encased in a plywood box since June 2020. On the eve of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a judge issued an emergency order that the plywood covering must be removed immediately.
Mayor Kenney tweeted that statue supporters should do nothing until the City’s appeal is heard.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever White House proclamation commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day:
Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our Nation celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.
Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to. That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began. For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures. Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society. We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations — a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.
On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announcing that enslaved people in states still in rebellion would be free within 100 days, i.e., January 1, 1863.
On September 22, 2021, the Emancipation and Freedom Monument was unveiled on Brown’s Island, a public park in Richmond, Virginia, capitol of the states in rebellion. During the Civil War, the island was the headquarters of the Confederate States Laboratory which manufactured ammunition for the Confederate war effort.
I recently checked out SEPTA’s “Portal to Discovery” art installation on view at the subway station closest to Independence Hall. When it is safe to go maskless outdoors, I will lead walking tours to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. The starting point is right above SEPTA’s 5th Street/Independence Hall station so I was eager to see whether any of the historic figures that I talk about are depicted. I was happy to see many are, including Still, Jane Johnson, Frances E.W. Harper and Frederick Douglass.
My happiness turned to dismay when I noticed Douglass’ first name is spelled “Fredrick.”
Why didn’t anyone notice the misspelling before the mural was installed? As it turns out, Tom Judd learned about the misspelling in February. Judd then concocted a story that the misspelling was intentional so that he would not have to admit his mistake. In the midst of the national reckoning on race, a white artist effectively said eff it. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:
Judd said he was upset about it. But he decided to let it go at that point because the error could be explained as “fitting into” a narrative that the chalkboard display had been written by a school student.
He voiced regrets for that decision. “I can see how it landed, like [it was] white people’s entitlement thinking that it [the misspelling] doesn’t matter,” Judd said.
For his “narrative” to make sense, the student’s teacher would not have caught the spelling error. To save face, Judd was willing to cast aspersions on Philadelphia’s teachers. This is white privilege in action. The real narrative is a story of indifference to Black history and the lack of diversity at the Philadelphia Art Commission which approved the design.
The misspelling has been corrected but “Frederick” sticks out like a sore thumb.
I recognize that 99.9% of those who view the mural will not notice the patch. But for me, it will remain a sore point. From the New York Times to student newspapers, misspelled names are routinely corrected. Yet a white artist, who was paid $200,000 in taxpayers’ money, apparently thought it was no big deal that he misspelled the name of a Black icon and seminal figure in American history.
Public art matters. Confederate monuments were installed to change the narrative about slavery and the Civil War, and to romanticize insurrectionist leaders of the “Lost Cause.”
In cities across the country, citizens have organized to take down symbols of white supremacy.
In some places an empty pedestal is all that remains.
Color of Change has launched The Pedestal Project, an Augmented Reality experience that replaces symbols of hate with symbols of equality:
Contentious statues have been torn down all across America, leaving behind empty pedestals in their wake. It’s time to place new symbols in their stead. The Pedestal Project is born of the vision to repurpose these ill-conceived pedestals by using technology to help people choose the statues that should go up on them. Statues of people who have dedicated their lives to fighting for justice and equality. So that beacons of hope and progress can stand where symbols of hate, oppression and inequality once stood. And that people everywhere can have an active voice in the movement for racial justice.
Former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo was sued by the Justice Department for a pattern of police brutality that shocks the conscience. Rizzo died on July 16, 1991. He was born again eight years later in the form of a 10-foot monument commissioned by Rizzo family and friends.
The Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee decided to place the statue in front of the Municipal Services Building. They also decided it would be unveiled on New Year’s Day 1999 after the Mummers Parade, an event best known for clowns prancing around in blackface.
Almost from the moment the hunk-of-junk was unveiled, African Americans and allies peacefully protested for its removal from the gateway to municipal services. Fast forward to 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would be removed by May 2018. Then he said by 2021. Then Kenney said the statue would not be moved before 2022. On May 30, 2020, demonstrators tried to topple it.
Realizing the jig is up, Kenney said the statue would be removed:
The way its engineered, it’s bolted into the stairs and under the stairs is the concourse where people get their permits and pay their taxes. We didn’t want to tear that up until we did the entire place. We’re going to move it, hopefully in about another month or so. We’re going to accelerate the removal.
The protests accelerated the removal. Rizzo was hauled away three days later. As for the concourse under the stairs, who are we to believe – Kenney or our lying eyes?
Kenney’s lie was compounded by his spokesperson Michael Dunn:
The statue is bolted into the infrastructure of the plaza, which is also the roof of the underground concourse. Removing it while ensuring the integrity of that infrastructure will be a complicated task.
It was such a complicated task the statue was removed under the cover of darkness.
Last week, Mural Arts Philadelphia unveiled Portraits of Justice, a public art project to engage ordinary citizens in conversations about transforming the criminal justice system.
Jeffrey Krimes and Russell Craig’s powerful murals overlook the statue of Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner who had close ties with Italian mobsters and hung out at Black Mafia-owned joints on “The Strip” in West Philly. As mayor, Rizzo was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of police brutality that “shocks the conscience.”
The murals’ bricks represent barriers to reentry. With their close proximity to Rizzo, the background brings to mind the former police commissioner gloating that his officers ordered Black Panthers up against a brick wall and forced them to strip naked in front of the news cameras. The August 31, 1970 incident is one of the many reasons Rizzo is loathed by African Americans.
The murals are designed to empower the public to reimagine a criminal justice system that is more than “just us.” To my surprise, they helped me reimagine a Thomas Paine Plaza without the Rizzo statue. The sheer size of the murals and the facial expressions are a silent rebuke to the monument to racial injustice. Tellingly, the family-commissioned hunk of junk has to be caged to protect it from the public.