SPRINGFIELD – A House committee tasked with reviewing statues and monuments on state property held its first meeting Wednesday, hearing from professors and state government associations on what frameworks can be established to guide the review process.
Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican who serves as minority spokesperson on the task force, said House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch’s creation of the review body is an “important and correct” decision.
“The history of our state, much like history itself can be complicated, nuanced and contradictory,” Butler said. “Who and what we honor through memorialization often reflects those complications and nuances. And some monuments which have been erected in previous generations certainly conflict with the values we hold today.”
Butler said figures such as John W.E. Thomas, who was born a slave in Alabama and in 1876 became the first African American elected to the Illinois General Assembly, should have a place of honor in the Illinois Capitol.
Butler also advocated for preserving the image of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, two former U.S. presidents with Illinois ties.
“While review and reevaluation are warranted on many things, advocating removal of monuments for people like Lincoln and Grant really gives me pause as to whether those who advocate for this position truly understand the tremendous positive impacts individuals like them have had on where our nation and world is today.”
Rep. Mary Flowers, who this year became the longest-serving Black lawmaker in the state’s history, is the chair of the task force. The Chicago Democrat said certain statues are indicative of “white supremacy,” and the committee’s role will be “education, education, education” on state monuments and their subjects.
“We cannot erase our history, our history is what it is,” she said. “But the fact of the matter is the same way we have eliminated the colored signs and the blacks only water fountains and bathrooms and different things like that, with these statues, those are the reminders of the past, as well as the white supremacy. And these are the things that we need to eliminate because that’s not who we are today.”
Flowers said there are statues “that have been erected to honor people that have done some horrible things to other people.” While they might not have a place at the Statehouse, she said, they could play a role in history viewed in a broader context.
“I don’t think that our committee is interested in destroying any monuments, statues, I want them to be placed elsewhere to be talked about so it would never happen again,” she said.
History and how it is written, told and portrayed in public spaces was a major theme of the first task force hearing.
“What are the stories that demand a more complete and honest retelling?” Linda Reneé Baker, a professor at Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute asked in her committee testimony. “We can’t erase the history, but we can retell the stories, we can work with the historians to tell them in a more factual manner, we can reframe the discussion in light of the truth as we know it.”
Landscape architecture professor David Hays of the University of Illinois spoke to the committee about how monuments can be used as forms of oppression.
“And here, it’s important to recall that history is not the same as the past,” Hays said. “The past refers to events or conditions that have already occurred and cannot be altered. In contrast, history is the way the past is represented, interpreted and understood. So history is always made in the present.”
History, Hays said “is always subjective. It’s a matter of opinion, even when anchored in facts.” The design of public places “plays a significant role” in interpreting elements of the past and translating them to the present.
An important question in analyzing art and public spaces is when and why the artwork first came to be, he said. Many monuments to the confederacy in the south and nationwide came to be in the 1920s, “and they were definitely put up as part of a campaign of intimidation,” he said.
“And that’s the way in which it’s really important to distinguish between the past and interpretation of the past history,” he said.
Butler said Hays’ perspective will be a valuable one as the committee educates itself on memorials to “complicated people.”
Flowers also noted that despite changing interpretations of the past, “bigotry is bigotry,” and some monuments are romanticized renderings of “how things used to be.”
“As a result of how things used to be, some people would like to carry on that legacy at the risk or at the harm of other people,” she said, noting some statues nationwide are “causing a lot of problems and have caused a lot of problems” with the simplified versions of the past they depict.
“History has been used, has been instrumentalized, to oppress people for a very long time,” Hays responded. “History is written by the victors, some say. But we can write history ourselves in ways that are more consistent with our meanings and that’s why I think it’s really important to say we can’t change the past, but we can change history.”
The committee will hold several hearings, Flowers said, although the exact number is not decided yet, and then it will present recommendations to the General Assembly.
On Wednesday, they also heard from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments to hear about actions being taken in other states to address monuments on state grounds.
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