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How Edwardsville Residents Are Grappling With Their City’s Controversial Namesake

Paola Rodriguez
St. Louis Public Radio
A statue of Ninian Edwards was removed from its pedestal in City Plaza after a local group, Our Edwardsville, asked for its removal because of the figure’s pro-slavery stances. The statue will still remain in the park.

The wake of a summer of racial reckoning in 2020 has many communities rethinking how they represent influential figures and symbols, including Edwardsville, Illinois. For the past year, some residents have worked to remove a statue of the city’s dubbed founder, Ninian Edwards.

In the fall, the city changed the name of a small park in downtown Edwardsville from Ninian Edwards Plaza to City Plaza. And last week, the city took a park statue of Edwards off its pedestal after a local group, Our Edwardsville, asked for its removal because of the figure’s pro-slavery stances and wars against Native Americans.

“We've gotten the city to talk about these things, to consider to take it off the pedestal, which is a small step, but it's a step nonetheless,” Emily Klingensmith, a member of Our Edwardsville, said. The statue is now in a less prominent place in the park.

Paola Rodriguez
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of Our Edwardsville gather in City Park to celebrate the Ninian Edwards statue being taken off its pedestal.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske discussed the controversy surrounding Edwardsville's namesake and the historical context surrounding Edwards’ significance to the history of Illinois.

Jon Parkin, the Madison County Historical Museum & Archival Library superintendent, and historian Anthony Cheeseboro, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, joined the conversation.

Edwards, born in Maryland, “honed his skills as a lawyer, politician and judge in Kentucky, and then he became part of that westward movement where people were seeking opportunity,” Parkin said.

Through his political connections, Edwards became the first, and only, territorial governor of Illinois in 1809, ahead of its Illinois’ statehood. The territory consisted of lands that are now considered parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.

Edwards brought his slaves with him to Illinois, despite the state being admitting into the Union as a free state in 1818.

How Edwardsville Residents Are Grappling With Controversial Namesake
Listen as two historians discuss the life of Ninian Edwards.

“What we see is that slavery continued in Illinois, under color of indentured servitude, and Ninian Edwards was a practitioner of that, and he was also was on record as being a slave dealer. There are records of him selling his slaves, particularly to people in Missouri,” Cheeseboro said.

The two historians also shared their thoughts on how people in the 21st century should view historical figures and whether statues are key to preserving that history. Both concluded that regardless of statues staying or not, these discussions should be treated as “teachable moments.”

Klingensmith also wrestled with this thought with her child: “My son's friend said, ‘Well, it really seems to me like if a statue is going to go up, the person should do more good than bad.’ And I said, ‘Well, what does good and bad [mean]? That's subjective.’ And he agreed with that,” she said.

“And so then we kind of talked through some things, and I think, good to me is good for everybody. What good could someone do that could outweigh owning other humans? I don't think that there is [anything] … why should we continue to pay homage to the white colonization movement?”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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