A Deeper Look At Edwardsville’s Slave-Owning Namesake And The Debate Over Statues
This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
As statues of historical figures are being defaced and toppled across the country because some people find them offensive, the city of Edwardsville is trying to decide what to do about its bronze depiction of Ninian Edwards.
The statue was erected in 2008 in Ninian Edwards Plaza, a small downtown park, to honor the man who not only became namesake of the frontier town in the early 1800s but also served as the Illinois Territory’s only governor, a U.S. senator and the state’s third governor, helping to shape regional history in a major way.
“It is a small project, but I think it sends a big message,” former Mayor Gary Niebur, who died earlier this year, said at the statue’s unveiling.
What a difference 12 years makes.
Now a Facebook group of about 200 people is asking Edwardsville City Council to move the Edwards statue to a less-central location, such as a museum, because he owned slaves and led attacks on Native Americans.
Ezra Temko, one of the group’s administrators, said the symbolism doesn’t match Edwardsville’s goal of being a city that welcomes people from all walks of life.
“There seems to be a dissonance between the city’s values of inclusion and diversity ... and this statue on a pedestal in the heart of the downtown of somebody who helped further slavery in the state and had been personally responsible for the removal and death of indigenous communities,” he said this week.
The group has received push-back from some historians and other local residents, who argue that you can’t judge people from the past by today’s standards and that it’s best to openly acknowledge, debate and learn from history.
Some opponents have characterized group members as “left-wing radicals,” and social-media discussions have become heated at times.
Offshoot of George Floyd protests
The United States has seen renewed and widespread controversy in recent months over the statues of Confederate Army generals and other historical figures, including Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who “discovered” America in 1492 according to centuries of school history lessons.
Confederates fought for the right of Southern states to keep slavery legal. Columbus and other Europeans murdered, raped, kidnapped, sold, maimed and otherwise terrorized Native Americans to pave the way for colonization.
The fact that many public squares are centered by giant likenesses of these men doesn’t sit well with Black Lives Matter supporters, who’ve been protesting against racism since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. That includes several peaceful protests in Edwardsville.
Even the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, a North Carolina descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, has taken up the cause.
“Why are we protecting statues that symbolize oppression instead of protecting the people that were oppressed?” he asked in an ABC News interview this month.
The national debate took an expansive turn in June, when protesters violently pulled down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in Portland, Oregon. The reason? The U.S. founding fathers enslaved hundreds of Black people.
Edwards owned many fewer slaves, but numbers are irrelevant on such a profound moral issue in the eyes of some activists.
Maryland to Illinois via Kentucky
Edwards was born in 1775 to a prominent Maryland family. He studied under renowned lawyer William Wirt (later U.S. attorney general), attended Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and moved to Kentucky at age 19 to manage family land.
Edwards served as a Kentucky state representative, practiced law and became the state’s chief justice before President James Madison appointed him governor of the newly created Illinois Territory in 1809, according to the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress. He was only 34.
The territory included what is now Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota and Michigan. Congress granted Edwards 1,000 acres of land, according to Carol Frisse, archival research assistant for Madison County Archival Library.
“Edwards and his wife, Elvira, moved to the American Bottoms, where he established a farm, which he named ‘Elvirade’ in honor of his wife,” she said. “Accompanying them to their new home were approximately two-dozen slaves, including women and children, and he also had several large herds of choice livestock.”
Slavery was prohibited in the Illinois Territory at the time, but people bringing in slaves could get around the law by forcing them to sign contracts for indentured servitude that could be binding for decades.
Edwards served as territorial governor until Illinois became a state in 1818. He vetoed one bill, which would have abolished indentured servitude. He’s credited with promoting local self-governance, expanding voting rights, overseeing big population gains and guiding Illinois to statehood, but he was a controversial political figure.
Another part of his job was commanding the Illinois Militia, which killed Native Americans and burned villages to avoid anticipated attacks on white settlements and ultimately helped with Indian-removal efforts.
Friend named Edwardsville after him
While territorial governor, Edwards designated the log cabin of Thomas Kirkpatrick, the first white settler in the Edwardsville area, as Madison County’s seat of justice. Kirkpatrick returned the favor by naming the small settlement “Edwardsville” after his friend. It later was incorporated as a city.
“(Edwards) built a home in 1819-20 at the corner of Fillmore and East Vandalia Streets,” according to a city history. “This location is currently the site of the convent of St. Boniface Catholic Church.”
Frisse noted that other prominent Edwardsville residents also had indentured servants at the time.
Perhaps the most well-known is Benjamin Stephenson, whose former home serves as the 1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House museum. It has long incorporated information on the “bitter legacy of human bondage” in its interpretive programs.
“As a cultural institution, we appreciate our community and our nation’s drive to tell an honest and just history,” its website states.
“We remain dedicated to tell the history of enslavement and indentured servitude in our region and invite all to take a tour to experience our site and become an active participant in our ongoing quest to illuminate the struggles for equality that have shaped Edwardsville and our state since its inception.”
Edwards was close friends with Stephenson, and his family apparently lived with Stephenson’s widow after their home burned.
In contrast to Edwards and Stephenson, local resident Edward Coles freed his slaves after bringing them from Virginia. He became Illinois’ second governor in 1822 and devoted much of his term to preventing slavery from being legalized.
Controversy took some by surprise
Most Edwardsville residents knew little about the city’s namesake, so many were surprised to hear that a public Facebook group called “Remove the Ninian Edwards Statue and Rename Ninian Edwards Plaza” had been created in mid-June.
Nearly 500 people signed up in a 24-hour period, according to a June 19 story in the Edwardsville Intelligencer.
“This is just one way we can help the civil rights movement that is happening all over the nation and the world,” said founder Kirk Schlueter, an Edwardsville native, teacher and tennis coach. “This is really a multi-racial movement for equality.”
The number of members continued to rise, reaching nearly 700, but it was later determined that many didn’t live in the community.
Schlueter archived the original Facebook group due to ugly exchanges, Temko said, and fellow administrators created a new one that’s private. People can’t join unless they have Edwardsville-area connections and agree to be civil. There were 203 members as of Thursday.
The new name, “Relocation of Ninian Edwards Statue and Renaming of Ninian Edwards Plaza,” was designed to clarify that the group wants the statue moved, not destroyed.
“We’re not trying to get rid of the statue,” said Temko, 34, a sociology professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who moved to the area about two years ago. “The point is not to stop telling Ninan Edwards’ story or learning about him. The point is to stop honoring his legacy in the heart of our downtown.”
Passionate feelings on both sides
Members of the new Facebook group submitted comments at Edwardsville City Council meetings on July 7 and July 21, as well as a MoveOn petition with 189 signatures, asking for the Edwards statue to be moved and the park renamed.
The number of petition signatures had grown to 235 by Thursday, and Illinois Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Collinsville) registered her support by signing a group letter.
“Even by the standards of his time, Ninian Edwards was a racist and an immoral man,” the group’s leader, Asher Denkyirah, told alderman at the July 21 meeting via Zoom. Most were attending from home due to the coronavirus.
Denkyirah, an SIUE graduate student, said she didn’t think local leaders intended to honor Edwards’ “harmful actions,” but that erecting the statue signaled approval and glorified his life and that failure to tell the full story created a “whitewashed narrative” of history. The park’s small plaque lists only his three Illinois political positions.
Several opponents also have weighed in at City Council meetings.
Leo Murphy, former president of Edwardsville High School Class of 2009, asked aldermen not to give into an “angry mob” and vowed to fight any effort to “erase” the city’s history, heritage or heroes, even if people falsely call him a “racist.”
“Ninian Edwards was a man of his time, and like most men of their time, he’s at odds against later sensibilities,” said Murphy, who attended the July 21 meeting in person at Edwardsville City Hall. “But to remove a man like Ninian is to remove the very bedrock of our nation.
“If the unforgivable crime he is guilty of is slavery, then men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence and nearly half the authors of the Constitution owned slaves. Are these great men to be removed from public sight also?”
Any City Council action on the Facebook group’s request would have to go through the Administrative & Community Services Committee. In the meantime, the group plans to hold an educational forum for the public.
Park built with donations and grants
The development of Ninian Edwards Plaza at the corner of St. Louis and Vandalia streets in Edwardsville was a source of pride for civic and business leaders, particularly Mayor Niebur, who spearheaded the project.
It also represented hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment. The city paid $195,000 for the wedge of land across from TheBANK of Edwardsville (now Busey Bank) in 2006 with an anonymous donation through Greater Edwardsville Area Community Foundation and demolished an accounting office that stood on it.
Illinois Rep. Jay Hoffman secured a state grant to pay for the fountain, landscaping, benches and other infrastructural improvements, according to a 2008 story in the Intelligencer.
The Edwards statue was commissioned with donations from Marion Richards, Lucco Law Firm, TheBANK of Edwardsville and First Clover Leaf Bank. It was unveiled on Sept. 15, 2008, and has been a fixture of downtown ever since.
“One cool thing is that he gets a Santa hat every year at Christmastime,” Frisse said.
Local artist Michele Middleton created the bronze statue, which weighs nearly 400 pounds. She told the Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis in 2008 that she wasn’t able to determine Edwards’ exact height, so she estimated it at 5 foot 6 inches based on paintings and other research. He was known to be short and heavyset.
“I read a lot about the man, and he was very (aristocratic),” Middleton said. “He loved to talk. Sometimes he would talk for two hours without stopping when a crowd was around.”
Walt Raisner, husband of Stephenson House Director RoxAnn Raisner, helped Middleton by modeling Federalist-style clothing.
Middleton couldn’t be reached for comment this week. She posted a photo of the statue on her Facebook page in June, noting she had cleaned it as recently as last year.
Edwardsville isn’t the only city with a Ninian Edwards statue, Frisse said. One was erected in Springfield eight years ago to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and honor him as commander-in-chief of the Illinois Militia. Edwards County also is named for him.
Alderman put opinions in writing
Three Edwardsville aldermen, S.J. Morrison, Dr. Chris Farrar and Will Krause, have used email and Facebook to explain their positions on the statue to local residents.
Morrison wrote in his monthly Ward 4 report to constituents that the Facebook group’s request prompted him to do some research on Edwards, who he had assumed was a man “decent enough” to get elected and re-elected to public office.
“I was shocked by what I learned,” Morrison wrote, noting he had attended the statue’s unveiling in 2008. “I had no idea about the atrocities that Ninian Edwards committed against human beings throughout his life. Not only was Edwards a slave owner, he used his power to keep slavery legal in Illinois.
“I know that historical context matters, and that it was a different time, but there are some actions which remain patently unacceptable across time and regardless of historical context — enslaving people is one of them. Here’s another: Ninian Edwards also oversaw the mass movement and (for the less compliant) murder of Native Americans throughout the Illinois Territory to take their land.”
At a minimum, Morrison wrote, he would support renaming the park and finding a better way to tell Edwards’ story.
Farrar stated his position in a July 3 email update for Ward 1 constituents. He supports renaming the park but leaving the statue in place.
“I feel the plaza should be redesigned to discuss our early history as a territory and state and where the City’s inception fits into this broader sweep of history while incorporating race and indentured servitude into the history of that time,” Farrar wrote.
“We can keep the statue but place it in the appropriate historical context. This could be a stop for any history walk as well. I would rename the plaza to Heritage Plaza or something equivalent to describe the new focus of the grounds.”
Encouraging debate in public square
Krause, alderman for Ward 5, agreed in a July 1 Facebook post that Edwards held views that are “totally unacceptable to modern sensibilities,” but he noted that Illinois wouldn’t exist in its current form without him.
“A review of history and of people’s lives should be more than a dichotomy of good or evil,” he wrote. “This is a complex debate. Removing these reminders of past leaders flattens out our historical landscape for the sake of providing a quick salve for today’s injustices. (It is) politically and intellectually wrong.”
Krause wrote that many Confederate monuments were erected decades after the Civil War to intimidate African Americans living under racially discriminatory practices in the Jim Crow South, and they should be removed because they’re rooted in hate.
He described a more complicated situation with statues or buildings named after other historical figures, ranging from former Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson to civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Removing the “more offensive traces of our collective history” from the public square and replacing them with new statues or monuments won’t solve society’s problems, Krause wrote.
“Ninian Edwards should remain because it stirs debate, which can be the starting point to creating substantive change. Remove the statue, the conversation stops. Period. On to the next chapter. Period.”
Black leaders stress practicality
John Cunningham, president of the NAACP’s Edwardsville branch, told the Intelligencer that he would support efforts to have the Edwards statue moved from the park if it would improve race relations in the city.
“But I don’t think the action is addressing the real issues we are facing,” he said.
Lifelong Edwardsville resident Herman Shaw, 86, had a similar reaction this week. The retired educator, who is Black, said he didn’t know anything about Edwards before this spring, and he had never paid much attention to the statue.
Shaw has been fighting for civil rights since the 1950s, when he was a teenager playing sports at the newly integrated Edwardsville High School. He later helped save the old Lincoln School for Black children and get a “Sambo-type” character redesigned on a mosaic mural at the former Edwardsville City Hall.
In recent months, Shaw has participated in Black Lives Matter protests. He’s mainly concerned about voting rights and equal opportunity in employment, education, housing and health care.
“There are people who will argue with you about whether to take down the statue and this, that and the other,” Shaw said. “And I’m saying, ‘Don’t spend a lot of time doing that. Spend the time doing some positive things that bring everyone together.’”
Shaw said a good compromise might be to add a plaque next to Edwards’ statue that would fully explain his beliefs and actions regarding race.
Edwards had ties to Belleville
After Illinois became a state, Edwards served as a U.S. senator from 1818 to 1824, practiced law and became Illinois’ third governor in 1826.
Throughout his political career, Edwards also made money as a land speculator and investor in sawmills, gristmills and stores. His ties to Belleville go back to at least 1814, when he purchased two tracts of land from George Blair, according to a 1936 story in the BND.
Edwards constructed a large stone warehouse at 22 E. Main St. and used part of it for a mercantile, which may have been the city’s first store. His family lived in a home where the old Turner Hall was built and later converted into a YMCA. He retired in Belleville in 1830, lost a Congressional election in 1832 and spent the rest of his life doing charity work.
“He gave money for supplies for the care of those ill during the cholera epidemic of 1833 and died while personally caring for the victims of the disease,” according to a 2012 story in the Alton Telegraph.
The Edwardses had four children, Ninian, a legislator, lawyer, Illinois attorney general, the state’s first superintendent of public instruction and husband to Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister; Albe, assistant treasury secretary under President Abraham Lincoln and founder of A.G. Edwards brokerage firm; Benjamin, a lawyer and judge; and Julia, who married U.S. Rep. Daniel Cook.
Madison County Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida has been researching Edwards because he’s writing a historical nonfiction book set in the region. He sees him as a man with a notable impact on Illinois but also deep flaws.
Von Nida, 62, of Edwardsville, said he hasn’t taken a position on the recent controversy, but if he did, it wouldn’t be all about Edwards’ politics or morality. He just doesn’t think the statue is attractive, inspiring or meaningful for most local residents.
Von Nida pointed to the bronze statue of James Madison inside Madison County Courthouse, which he does find inspiring. The fourth U.S. president is holding a rolled-up Bill of Rights.
“There’s nothing about (the Edwards statue) that would give somebody a feeling ... or inspire them to go out and do something good,” Von Nida said. “That’s really at its core. Why do we put these things in a public space? To draw people together as a community and to bind us to a common cause and also to celebrate what we value.”
A caveat: Madison owned slaves, too.
Teri Maddox is a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.