Home > Uncategorized > Where are the abolitionist statues? – posted 6/28/2020

Where are the abolitionist statues? – posted 6/28/2020

Since the start of the George Floyd protests, removal of Confederate statues moved center stage. Over the last 150 years, these statues proliferated across the South. There are over 700 monuments and statues to the Confederacy although some are now coming down.

Overwhelmingly, these monuments were built during the Jim Crow era after the defeat of Reconstruction. They exist as a symbol of white supremacy and the disenfranchisement of black people.

President Trump has stepped forward in defense of Confederate statues as part of American heritage. He has advocated that a Washington D.C. statue of Confederate Brigadier General Albert Pike be put back up. Protesters recently knocked it down. Trump has also tweeted in favor of long prison sentences for anyone causing injury to Confederate statues.

One reaction I have: how come there are so many more memorials and statues dedicated to Confederates than to abolitionists and to soldiers who died for the Union? There are some statues dedicated to abolitionists but way less than there should be.

I think that speaks to the depth of racism in this country. Even during the Civil War, there was deep ambivalence about abolition of slavery among those on the Union side. Plus black people and abolitionists were subject to hateful slander. That slander began long before the Civil War and has continued.

Even in the North until the civil rights era, black people were often depicted as illiterate, uncouth and lecherous. Racists saw Blacks as unfit for citizenship as well as innately inferior. After the Civil War, Black Codes reimposed a new form of slavery.

Racists saw abolitionists as narrow-minded fanatics and extremists opposed to the entire Southern way of life. They were often compared unfavorably to political moderates and those who were more willing to compromise.

I remember in high school American history class a very negative characterization of Reconstruction. Northerners who came to the Southern states were “carpetbaggers”. White Southerners who supported the Republicans were “scalawags”. The stereotype was that Blacks and Radical Republicans were out to loot and plunder the defeated South. And I have to acknowledge I went to school in the Philadelphia area, not a Confederate stronghold.

The historian Carol Anderson has written:

“We de-Nazified Germany. We never de-Confederalized the South.”.

The Confederacy has escaped much of the awful press it has deserved. It dishonors the Union dead to celebrate the men who killed them and who tried to kill the nation to maintain something truly monstrous.

While negative stereotypes of abolitionists still hold some sway, I wanted to cite some abolitionist heroes who deserve greater recognition and honor than they have received. I will offer six names on what could be a much longer list. Each went all in on the abolitionist struggle.

  • Frederick Douglass. I would put him on a list of one of the five greatest Americans ever. Born a slave, he dedicated his life to the freedom of his enslaved brothers and sisters. A master orator and a skilled journalist, over a long career Douglas remained a stalwart Radical Republican. His autobiography is a classic.
  • Thaddeus Stevens. Radical Republican leader in Congress who ferociously opposed racial discrimination. He pushed President Lincoln to oppose slavery at every turn. He played a critical role in passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. His last wish was to be buried in an integrated cemetery.
  • Lucretia Mott. A Quaker, Mott helped organize women’s abolitionist societies since anti-slavery organizations in the 1830’s would not admit women as members. Mott remained a radical abolitionist activist until her death in 1880.
  • Benjamin Wade. A U.S. Senator from Ohio, Wade was one of the most radical Republicans. He also pushed Lincoln and supported the Freedman’s Bureau. He pushed hard for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson because Johnson conciliated slaveowners and Confederates.
  • Sojourner Truth. Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth sued to recover her five year old son who had been illegally sold to an owner in Alabama. She won, which was incredibly unusual for a black woman suing a white man. She went on to a long activist career in support of abolition and women’s rights.
  • John Brown. A highly controversial figure, Brown advocated the use of armed struggle to overthrow slavery. He led a raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in an effort to start a slave liberation movement. Brown intended to arm slaves. He was captured, hastily tried for treason against Virginia and hanged.

In asking where are the abolitionist statues, the deeper question is why abolitionists have gotten such short shrift historically. They are largely unknown but the abolitionists are among our true American heroes.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Pat Dawson
    June 28, 2020 at 7:46 pm

    That’s really interesting and something I had not given much thought to. As usual, you give me something to ponder!
    Thank you for taking the time.

  2. Debbie Socolar
    June 29, 2020 at 7:47 pm

    Well put! I was thinking about paucity of abolitionist statues, and you have really fleshed out the issue, thanks. Your list is a good start — and there are many many others. David Walker, who wrote the influential Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. If John Brown, why not Denmark Vesey or Nat Turner? And perhaps both David Ruggles and Elijah Lovejoy? Elizabeth Freeman and Dred Scott, who both filed suits for freedom? William Lloyd Garrison? A small sample!

    • June 30, 2020 at 1:19 am

      There are a lot more names. You are right, Debbie. I was arbitrary and cut the list for space considerations. There is a great book about the abolitionists in Congress pushing Lincoln called Congress at War by Fergus Bordewich. A wonderful book.

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