Controversial Statue Will Go From Pedestal To Ground Level In Edwardsville City Plaza
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
EDWARDSVILLE — Arguably the most controversial issue in Edwardsville for the past year is one step closer to a conclusion.
Early Monday morning with little fanfare, workers took the bronze Ninian Edwards statue off its pedestal and began preparing to put it on a concrete pad even with the ground. They aren’t moving it out of a downtown park, as a local group had requested.
Officials plan to eventually install a plaque to explain Edwards’ story, not only as the city’s namesake and a key figure in early Illinois politics, but also as a slave owner who led attacks on Native Americans.
“While the City realizes the past cannot be erased, we can certainly learn from it and use history as a tool for improvements in the future,” Mayor Art Risavy stated in a news release on Monday.
“One of my goals during my term is to increase diversity within our volunteer committees and our workforce.”
Risavy, who was elected mayor in April, asked workers to change the way the statue was displayed after reaching agreement with members of Edwardsville City Council, according to his office.
Locals will keep pushing for statue’s removal
Risavy formerly served as an alderman on the city’s Administrative and Community Services Committee, which has been grappling with the statue controversy since spring of 2020.
That’s when a local group, now known as Our Edwardsville, asked officials to move the Ninian Edwards statue out of downtown to show that the city is a place where diversity is valued and racism isn’t tolerated.
Ezra Temko, one of the group’s leaders, on Monday called taking the statue off its pedestal “a good step.” But he promised to keep promoting the idea of moving it to a new location, “a place of education rather than a place of honor.”
“We’d like the city to continue to network and think about this and creatively consider what places there are (for the statue),” said Temko, an assistant professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
“We’re certainly not opposed to removal of the statue from its pedestal, but we don’t see this as solving the issue and making this a welcoming plaza or a welcoming entrance to the downtown. It’s still a distortion of history and the honoring of Ninian Edwards’ legacy of perpetuating slavery.”
Temko noted that some officials had signaled support for moving the statue to another location, such as Madison County Historical Museum or Lusk Park, but the museum staff cited logistical problems and park neighbors opposed the idea.
Passion on both sides
The United States has seen renewed and widespread unrest over statues of slave-owning historical figures since May 2020, when George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, who was later convicted of his murder.
In the early 1800s, Edwards was the Illinois Territory’s only governor, a U.S. senator and the state’s third governor. The settlement of Edwardsville was incorporated in 1819.
In 2008, local residents raised money to build a small, wedge-shaped park near Madison County Courthouse and install the statue, trees, benches and a fountain.
The park’s name was changed from Ninian Edwards Plaza to City Plaza in November after months of social-media debates, letters to the editor, meeting testimony and at least one formal protest.
Some local historians and other residents argued that the statue should remain in place as a representation of the city’s history, even though societal values have changed in the past 200 years.
“I want to thank those who participated in the discussion, both for and against the removal and/or relocation of the statute,” Risavy stated in the news release. “I believe removing the statue from its pedestal and relocating the statue in the park is in the best interest of the City at this time.”
Officials plan to apply for a grant later this year to pay for a new plaque that provides more information than the current one mounted on a stone next to the statue.
Human Relations Committee reactivated
Also on Monday, Risavy announced that the city is reorganizing and reactivating its Human Relations Committee, formerly the Human Relations Commission, which hasn’t been operational for several years.
The mission of the committee’s volunteer members will be to improve race relations and generate positive dialogue about modern issues for the betterment of the community.
“Given the social and racial climate that’s challenging us as a city, state and nation, it’s key that committees such as this exists to help connect the community and elected officials with the citizens it represents,” former commission member Paul Pitts said.
Pitts is retired assistant chancellor of affirmative action and diversity at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Human Relations Committee members are expected to be appointed in July. Their first meeting in August will focus on affordable housing in Edwardsville and diversity training for city employees.
In March, officials held an open forum at the Wildey Theatre to discuss affordable-housing options and grant opportunities. The city’s planning department recently completed a study on the issue and plans to hire a consultant to create goals and strategies.
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.