▶ Watch Video: A monumental reckoning

Rutgers history professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar has dedicated much of her career to telling the story of Ona Judge, one of the more than 300 Black people enslaved by President George Washington and his wife, Martha.

When asked what she thinks when she looks at a statue of Washington, Dunbar replied, “It’s the first President of the United States. It’s the leader of the American Revolution. But I also see a slaveholder.”

Ona Judge managed to escape when the couple was living in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital during the 1790s. She was never captured – not that the Washingtons didn’t try.

“The Washingtons were very adamant that they wanted Ona Judge to return,” Dunbar told correspondent Mo Rocca. “And what’s so very interesting is to think about George and Martha Washington relentlessly pursuing Ona Judge. He was using slave-catching agents to collect Martha Washington’s, and his, property. And we have to reckon that there was that side of Washington alongside of his contributions to the creation of the nation.”

And for Dunbar, that reckoning may mean taking Washington down from his pedestal – literally.

Rocca asked, “Should some monuments to George Washington be removed?”

“I think it makes sense to have monuments of remembrance for George Washington in spaces where there’s a direct connection to him,” Dunbar said. “But do I need to see George Washington’s face in every park, or in places throughout cities? No, not necessarily. Because for some people he’s a reminder of the trauma of slavery.”

The long-running battle over America’s monuments came to a head in 2015 after a White supremacist murdered nine African-Americans at Charleston, South Carolina’s Mother Emanuel Church. Since then, around 100 Confederate statues have been dishonorably discharged.

But since the death of George Floyd, the range of figures targeted as racist or oppressive has expanded well beyond the Civil War South.

Dunbar said, “Monuments are literally elevated above the people, right? This is a wrestle over power; this is a wrestle over who gets to tell the nation’s history, who gets to be at the top of that history.”

But the power politics behind memorials aren’t always obvious. Christopher Columbus has long been controversial – a brilliant navigator and a brutal colonialist.

Of one Columbus statue, a protester said, “That’s telling me my people are less than human, my people are brown-skinned beasts.”

But many Columbus statues were erected in the early 20th century as symbols of pride for Italian-Americans, a group that had faced fierce prejudice, even lynchings, in the 1890s.

One counter-protester defended a Columbus statue, saying protesters were “slapping every Italian-American in the face with this BS that’s going on here.”

As Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie Bunch may be the closest thing America has to a national curator. “For many Italian-Americans, this was a way to demonstrate that they contributed to making America, a way to say that they were equal. My sense is, though, very few people know that when they look at a Columbus statue.”

He believes monuments should reflect today’s values.

“I think that what the Columbus statue tells us, is that it’s a challenge to take something that was done 70 years ago and help it evolve,” said Bunch. “So, my notion is that some of these statues can be pruned.”

While one Black man said, “We have to get rid of every racist monument in this country,” a White woman said, “It’s a part of history, and it should stay here.”

Rocca asked Bunch, “In general, are you heartened by all of these debates?”

“Any time people talk about history, I’m a happy guy,” Bunch replied. “And I think there’s something powerful about a country periodically debating who it is, and who it wants to become.”

But what many have found jarring is the lack of debate.

Missionary Junipero Serra: torched. Augustus Saint-Saudens’ tribute to an all-Black Union regiment: graffitied. Thomas Jefferson: toppled. Ulysses S. Grant: fallen. Even Gandhi has been bloodied.

Rocca asked Dunbar, “As a historian, do you start to wonder, ‘I wonder if all these people know their history?'”

“Well, actually no, I don’t wonder. I know that they don’t!” she laughed. “I know that the vast majority of Americans don’t know their history.”

“Does that bother you?”

“It horrifies me,” Dunbar said. “I also understand that there’s anger. There’s rage. And sometimes there’s collateral damage.”

Writer Richard Brookhiser thinks a little bit of humility is in order: “There is a big element of anti-Americanism in this. Not only anti- the bad things, but anti- the good things, because there are no good things, right? The whole history is corrupt! And I think that’s wrong.

“I mean, if you’re only gonna have statues of perfect people, you’re gonna be left with Jesus Christ. You’re not gonna have a lot of other statues!” he laughed. “People are complicated. We have to realize that about ourselves, and about the dead.”

Brookhiser is the biographer of several founding fathers, including Washington. “Washington was a hero in the struggle for self-rule,” he said. “And the struggle for self-rule is the big story of the last 250 years. It includes all the other stories. It includes anti-colonialism, it includes the struggle against racism. The American Revolution was the greatest experiment in human political history, and it’s crazy to throw that in the garbage can.”

Lonnie Bunch sees in Washington and our other slave-holding founding fathers contradictions we should strive to understand.

“I do not think you erase Washington and Jefferson and, of course, obviously, now everybody loves Hamilton,” he said. “It’s almost like saying: how do you understand your parents if you only know a little bit about them? The more you know about them, the more you better understand who they were, and then who you are. And that’s what I’d like us to see with some of the founding fathers. Help people understand a little better who they once were, and who they can be.”

Rocca said, “It’s a big moment in anyone’s life when they realize their parents aren’t perfect people!”

“You’re right! And then as you get older, you realize they were more perfect than you thought initially,” Bunch said.

Perhaps the best way to bring peace to our memorial landscape is to add statues.

In 2017 Philadelphia dedicated a statue of Octavius Catto, a 19th century African-American civil rights activist who was murdered on his way to vote. It’s right outside City Hall, which is where Rocca bumped into Philly resident Les Starkey and his daughter, Summer.

“This gentleman finally got his due,” Starkey said.

Rocca asked, “Seeing this statue gives you a feeling of – ?”

“Pride!” Starkey laughed. “I lift my chest up a little more. I do, man! I mean, it’s one of us. I can do something great like him. He was a great man, Summer. We’re gonna read more about him, okay? I promise.”

Passions may continue flaring in the short term. But as in all things historical, it’s important to consider the long view.

This is not, for example, the first time in history that statues have been toppled. “There was a statue toppled in New York City in 1776,” said Brookhiser, “a gilded statue of George III, which had been put up when we all thought he was a good guy.

“We were fighting the revolution at that point. The statue was torn down, and the story is that it was made of lead, and the lead was melted into bullets.”

Rocca asked, “Are any of these things permanent?”

“Nothing is permanent,” said Brookhiser. “You know, we’re all gonna die. There’ll come a time when the United States doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Some things last longer than others?”

“Well, some things last longer than others – and let’s hope the good things last longest!”

For more info:

Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Joe Frandino.

See also: 

Should Columbus statues come down?