Ninian Edwards Statue In Edwardsville To Stay For Now
EDWARDSVILLE — A controversial bronze statue of Ninian Edwards will, for the time being, remain where it is installed, in a small plaza near the city’s center.
Edwards, whom the city is named after, was a founding political leader in Illinois, serving as its only territorial governor in the early 1800s and later as a U.S. Senator and the state’s third governor.
He owned enslaved people and vetoed legislation as territorial governor that would have abolished indentured servitude, which many historians say was a defacto form of slavery. Additionally, Edwards commanded the Illinois Militia, which killed indigenous people and led attacks on their villages.
This legacy prompted local activists to call on Edwardsville city leaders to relocate the statue and explain Edwards’ whole history, which now only mentions his political legacy on a small plaque nearby.
“All it really talks about is that he was a founding political leader and governor of Illinois in the 1800s,” said Asher Denkyirah, a co-leader of Our Edwardsville, a local grassroots organization that wants the statue moved. “It completely whitewashes that he was a slave owner who actively encouraged the continuation of slavery.”
Denkyirah said the statue in its current state serves to commemorate Edwards, and doesn’t reveal how he upheld racism.
“It’s mind boggling to me that Edwardsville hasn’t really shown the full story of Ninan Edwards,” said Denkyirah, who grew up in the area and attended Edwardsville schools.
“The fact that none of our history classes talked about him says a lot,” she said.
Action by Edwardsville City Council
The local organizing efforts this year have yielded some immediate results. In November, the city council voted unanimously to rename the small park where the Edwards statue currently stands to City Plaza. But that may be the extent of any action the city will immediately take regarding the statue.
“As of right now, there’s no other exact plans to move forward with any other changes in the park,” said Art Risavy, Edwardsville Ward 7 alderman. “Our plan was, initially, to rename the park. We felt it was the right thing to do.”
Risavy chairs the city’s Administrative and Community Services committee, which brought forward the resolution to change the plaza’s name and would be responsible for bringing forward further legislation that would address the Edwards statue.
He explained the city is pursuing other avenues to promote racial justice, like reviewing city hiring practices, creating a city diversity officer position and establishing forums where citizens, elected officials and the police can have open discussion about racial issues in the community.
“As of right now, we have not discussed any other further action in reference to anything to do with the plaza,” Risavy said. “My feeling is that there isn’t support on the council to go any farther. It doesn’t mean that isn’t going to change in the future.”
“Now that we are aware of the truth of his past, we have to do something,” he said. “We simply can’t leave it the way it is and go on acting like there’s nothing wrong.”
Morrison also serves on the city’s community services committee with Risavy and said the council is considering different ways to address the statue. He said the city can move the statue to a new location, like a local museum, or add another plaque to the current location that provides a more complete picture of Edwards’ history.
“That’s what we as a council are going to be considering in the next months,” Morrison said.
What activists want
For their part, the local activists and protesters that initially drew attention to Edwards’ history want the statue moved to another location in the city where his full legacy is presented, said Ezra Temko, co-leader of Our Edwardsville.
“Ideally, it’s some type of setting that’s designed for education, like a museum,” he said. “Any place that removes it from a place of honor and instead puts it in a place where it’s primary goal is providing context and education.”
Keeping the statue in the community and providing context has been a cornerstone of what some area residents have wanted to see since they started organizing in June, said Denkyirah.
“It would be very easy for us to just say, ‘Get rid of the statue, never see it again.’” she said. “I think [keeping it] provides a way where we can look back at history and see how far we’ve come or how far we haven’t come.”
Temko and Denkyirah acknowledge the road to altering the monument hasn’t been easy. They’ve encountered resistance from residents of Edwardsville and surrounding communities.
“We did see quite a lot of backlash,” Denkyirah said. “It was very much, ‘This is never going to happen, don’t even try,’ mentality from community leaders.”
Although the city is the Madison County seat, in many ways it’s a small and traditional town, Temko said. Grassroots activism isn’t something many current residents are familiar with, he explained.
“It’s a different way of doing business than people are used to in Edwardsville,” Temko said. “I think that’s good for our community, but it’s also uncomfortable. Part of [the statue’s] history is also the city coming together and deciding that this isn’t what our Edwardsville is.”
Past activism in Edwardsville
This isn’t the first time Edwardsville residents have pushed the city’s government to remove or alter public art they saw as racist. In the late 1980s, Herman Shaw, a black resident, and others successfully lobbied the city to alter a mural on the front of City Hall that depicted an enslaved person who had been freed.
“I was very disappointed because it was not a black person doing anything important,” he said. “He was standing with his knees kind of bowed and both arms outstretched showing he had been in bondage.”
Shaw said he approached the mayor at the time to both express his disappointment and to ask for an explanation after he first saw it. The mayor told him the black figure in the mural signified the actions of a white slave owner who freed the people he had owned in the Edwardsville area, Shaw said.
Shaw added he learned most elementary school students in the area were taken to see the mural.
“I just would imagine that any classes that had black children, it would have been as embarrassing to them as it was to me,” Shaw said.
He consulted with other black community members and eventually organized a group to call on the city to change the mural. Their request met stiff opposition, Shaw said.
“It took a long time and a lot of argument, back and forth in city hall,” he said. “At one time they voted to not change it, but of course then we started walking up and down the streets with signs.”
It took nearly a year of consistent attention on the issue before the city amended the mural, Shaw said. He sees stark similarities between his experience more than 30 years ago and what younger community members are pushing for with the Edwards statue today.
Shaw, 86, said he remains hopeful for change, having lived through the end of racial segregation in Edwardsville and the surrounding area. He added he’s confident the local activists of today will achieve their goals.
“In my lifetime, we have come a long way,” Shaw said. “I think that [the statue] will come down. Just by listening to comments made by different people in the community, most of whom are white, they feel that it’s not appropriate.”
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. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid