What’s Edwardsville Going To Do About Statue After Learning Namesake Defended Slavery?
Edwardsville may soon take action on an area in its downtown dedicated to the city’s namesake four months after learning he defended the enslavement of people through indentured servitude in the 1800s, when slavery was prohibited in Illinois.
Last week, an Edwardsville committee that manages the city’s parks voted in favor of taking an ordinance to the seven-alderman council that would change the name of Ninian Edwards Plaza, a small downtown park, and the citizen group supporting the removal of a statue of Edwards from that site had its first protest on the issue.
The earliest the City Council could vote on the proposed name change is at its Nov. 17 meeting. It is expected to be on the council’s Nov. 3 meeting agenda for discussion. Under the ordinance, it would be called City Plaza “until an appropriate name can be decided upon by the City Council.”
The three aldermen on the committee — SJ Morrison, Will Krause and Art Risavy — each described the ordinance as a “first step” during their meeting Thursday night.
Most aldermen support the renaming; there was consensus at an earlier committee meeting in October attended by five of the seven aldermen. The action is an effort to show the community they are listening to concerns about the statue and plaza, the aldermen said.
A group of people from the Edwardsville area informed city leaders in June that Ninian Edwards was a slave owner who vetoed legislation that would have ended indentured servitude and advocated the removal of Native Americans from the statewhile he was governor in Illinois.
They asked the City Council to remove a bronze statue of Edwards from the Ninian Edwards Plaza, a park at the corner of St. Louis and Vandalia streets; relocate it, possibly to a museum; display plaques detailing Edwards’ history alongside the statue at the new location; and rename the plaza.
“The statue and plaza perpetuate negative messages about who is and is not welcome in our city, about who we revere and who we value,” they wrote in a June petition to the City Council.
The Edwardsville branch of the NAACP joined in the calls for the statue’s removal in August, according to correspondence with the city included in meeting minutes.
There is also an opposition group, urging the City Council not to “tear down history.”
The five aldermen who met earlier in October — Morrison, Krause, Risavy, Janet Stack and Jack Burns — said they support the idea of installing a large educational plaque about Edwards.
They are in the process of bringing representatives from the interested groups together to decide what should be written about Edwards’ history on the plaque, and they are forming a committee to make recommendations for the city’s next steps, which could include removing the statue or keeping it at the downtown site with adjustments, such as removing the pedestal it stands on and adding the plaque.
Risavy said Thursday that the new committee would include people from all the groups expressing opinions about what to do with the statue.
“As aldermen, our job is to listen to everyone — every group, every citizen — to get a feeling for a community as a whole,” Risavy said during the committee meeting.
Only two aldermen have publicly voiced their support for relocating the statue: Morrison and Craig Louer.
Why does Edwardsville have a statue of Ninian Edwards?
Former alderman Rich Rezabek said at a committee meeting this month that Edwardsville commissioned a statue of Edwards because the city is named after him. It was installed in the downtown park in 2008.
“He’s part of our history. I’m sure at the time none of the other historical information was totally researched when that statue was put there,” Rezabek said during the meeting.
Edwards was appointed governor of the Illinois Territory in 1809, before Illinois was a state. He later became the state of Illinois’ third governor.
As territorial governor, he appointed Edwardsville’s settler, Thomas Kirkpatrick, to be a judge, according to Madison Historical, an online encyclopedia maintained by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s history department. Kirkpatrick named Edwardsville after him, the encyclopedia states.
Protesters rally for statue’s removal
On Saturday, more than 60 people attended a protest in Edwardsville, organized by the citizen group pushing for the statue’s removal from downtown.
There was a letter-writing campaign within the event, which took place at the statue. Organizers distributed packets that contained the start of a letter addressed to Edwardsville Mayor Hal Patton and the City Council. It read, “I support removing the Ninian Edwards statue from its current location because...”
According to the group, over 50 protesters also signed a petition that read, “We oppose keeping a statue of Ninian Edwards in a public square in downtown Edwardsville. We support learning our history and learning from our history without the City of Edwardsville honoring and venerating Ninian Edwards’ racist legacy. Our public squares should reflect our community’s values.”
Asher Denkyirah, one of the group’s leaders, said she was invited to join the committee that will eventually make recommendations to the City Council about future action related to the statue.
“We are willing to work with the City Council,” she said in an interview Saturday. “But right now, our stance is always going to be relocation. And hey, it may not happen in a couple months, it may not happen in a year, but until we get this statue in a place where full historical contextualization is realized, we’re still going to continue doing so.”
Recent discussion on relocating the statue
Richard Keasey, who is running for a seat on the Madison County Board in the Nov. 3 election, wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page that he was invited to join the committee after he spoke against removing the statue at Thursday’s committee meeting.
He said the statue was erected to celebrate and honor Edwards’ accomplishments and criticized protesters for their opposition of Edwards because he “did not live up to 21st century standards.”
“He owned slaves, which in his time was considered normal if not outright expected for a man of his societal stature,” Keasey said.
Alderman Craig Louer said other residents have privately “expressed their hurt and pain” to him, which is why he supports relocating the statue.
“To me, the vote is about respecting them, their feelings — people that actually live, serve in this community,” Louer said during Thursday’s meeting. “It’s about the feeling that I think this community has overall that we’re an inclusive place.”
Alderman SJ Morrison believes the more “appropriate setting” for the statue is the Madison County Historical Museum or 1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House, a museum dedicated to telling “the history of enslavement and indentured servitude in our region,” according to its website.
But Alderman Will Krause said Thursday that representatives from those museums, including volunteers, have indicated to him that they do not want to acquire the Edwards statue.
Hesitation from the Edwardsville museums is not discouraging to the group pushing for the statue’s removal from downtown, according to Denkyirah. She said the group has also suggested City Hall as a possible new location.
“Right now, I feel like those steps of where we should put the statue can be figured out later,” she said Saturday.
Lexi Cortes is a reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.