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Culture & History

Most controversial St. Louis-area statues and street names remain despite 2020 protests

 The bronze statue of Ninian Edwards in Edwardsville's City Plaza on Oct. 4. The statue was removed from a pedestal earlier this year, but still stands in the same park it was before.
Eric Schmid
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The bronze statue of Ninian Edwards in Edwardsville's City Plaza on Oct. 4. The statue was removed from a pedestal earlier this year but still stands in the same park it was before.

More than a year ago, momentum appeared strong to remove or change statues and street names in the St. Louis region that commemorate people with ties to slavery, genocide and other atrocities.

But since those calls surfaced, not much has changed, despite petitions from the public and commitments from some local elected leaders. 

Columbus removed

In June 2020, Tower Grove Park’s board of commissioners abruptly decided to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from its perch at a prominent entrance to the park.

“What struck me was how quickly that re-emerged and most importantly, action emerged,” said Washington University history professor Peter Kastor on St. Louis on the Air after the statue came down.

The same day the Columbus statue was removed, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced the county would review the names of streets, parks and statues to ensure they don’t celebrate oppressive people or events.

Page said the county needed to address these symbols in an organized way and not piecemeal when issues arose. But the effort stalled early on and has yet to get back on track, largely because the county government has been consumed with responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Crews lift the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Tower Grove Park on June 16, 2020.
File photo / Shahla Farzan
Crews lift the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Tower Grove Park on June 16, 2020. The Tower Grove Park board of commissioners removed the statue in the weeks following the murder of George Floyd.

Doug Moore, Page’s spokesperson, said the county intends to restart the effort, but that won’t happen until after an internal review of ordinances and procedures to ensure they prioritize equity and inclusion for government employees and the public.

Moore added this equity plan likely won’t be completed until early next year.

Other removal efforts are pushing forward, albeit slowly. A University City task force suggested in April that the municipality rename four streets — Amherst, Jackson, Wilson and Pershing.

The council met last month to consider next steps and agreed to focus on changing Jackson Avenue, which is named for Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, before tackling the other streets, said City Manager Gregory Rose.

He added the number of homes and businesses on that street make it the most challenging to change.

“It’s not only an impact to University City, but also to Clayton, which is another jurisdiction we would need to coordinate to change the street name,” he said.

Altering a street name is complicated because it brings costs to residents and businesses, Rose said.

“All of the addressing has to change,” he said. “That means you have to do outreach to customers as well as working with the post office and the changing of letterhead and all those types of things.”

The pandemic is another factor slowing down progress in the city, Rose said. The municipal government wants to gather feedback about any potential changes from residents and businesses in person, he said.

“We would like to have these meetings in person, if at all possible, because we think the best value is through that type of interaction,” Rose said. “A lot of it is really contingent on what happens with the infection rate.”

Some change happening

The only clear statue removals in the region have come from groups independent of larger regional governments.

Tower Grove Park’s board of commissioners made the decision for the Columbus statue. Last month, the Cherokee Street Improvement District decided on its own to remove the 13-foot statue of a Cherokee man.

The organization said the foam and fiberglass sculpture did not appropriately honor the Indigenous communities that have ties to the region.

Its sculptor, Bill Christman, agreed with the removal and placement of the statue in the National Building Arts Center in Sauget.

“It had a 35-year run,” he said on St. Louis on the Air last month. “Times have changed. The merchants were just hoping to jazz up the neighborhood and help draw customers.”

 Workers remove the pedestal that formerly held the bronze Ninian Edwards statue in the park at the corner of St. Louis and Vandalia streets in Edwardsville on Monday morning. The statue became a flashpoint in the community last year after some locals learned Edwards, the city's namesake, had owned enslaved people.
File Photo / Derik Holtmann
Workers remove the pedestal that formerly held the bronze Ninian Edwards statue in the park at the corner of St. Louis and Vandalia streets in Edwardsville on June 22. The statue became a flashpoint in the community last year after some locals learned Edwards, the city's namesake, had owned enslaved people.

Controversy in Edwardsville

Meanwhile, another controversial statue still stands: a bronze cast of Ninian Edwards in a park near the center of Edwardsville.

Edwards, the city’s namesake, and his statue became the focus of local protests last year after many locals discovered his legacy included owning enslaved people and leading the Illinois Militia, which killed Indigenous people and led attacks on their villages.

“It’s mind boggling to me that Edwardsville hasn’t really shown the full story of Ninian Edwards,” said Asher Denkyirah, who went to school in Edwardsville growing up. “The fact that none of our history classes talked about him says a lot.”

Denkyirah also led some of the efforts pushing for the city to remove the Edwards statue, before stepping back from organizing. Local activists wanted the statue moved to a setting where the full context of Edwards’ legacy would be shared.

“It would be very easy for us to just say, ‘Get rid of the statue, never see it again,’” Denkyirah said. “But I think this provides a way where we can look back at history and see how far we’ve come or how far we haven’t come.”

Edwardsville opted to move the Edwards statue off a pedestal, but it’s still in the same public plaza where it was before. Denkyirah calls this a “halfway attempt.”

Paul Pitts, chair of Edwardsville’s Human Rights Committee, said: “From my point of view, there’s more action to come. It’s in limbo now.”

Pitts isn’t affiliated with the groups pushing for the removal of Edwards, though he said he did want to see the statue come down. But that’s not the only thing he wants to see happen.

“We can’t undo the history; moving the statue is not going to erase that,” Pitts said. “It’s a learning opportunity for the whole community if we make it an area that reflects the true history of Edwardsville as it relates to African Americans, Native Americans and others.”

He’s optimistic the city will be able to address this sensitive topic.

“If we don’t sit down at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood and tackle the tough issues, it’s not going to happen,” Pitts said. “I believe that we’re going to come to a resolution that I think the whole community will be in agreement with.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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