Removing historical statues: does it alter history?

A timely discussion with academic leaders about the cultural significance of some historical monuments and the push to remove them

Posted: Jul 7, 2020 8:43 AM
Updated: Jul 7, 2020 9:11 AM

CHICO, Calif. - In recent weeks across the country statues depicting historical figures have become the focal points for discussion and action about racial equality, violence and oppression.

Action News Now Morning Anchor Julia Yarbough recently spoke to experts in the fields of history, anthropology and archeology about the larger implications of such events.

She spent time talking with Adrienne Scott, the curator of the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology at Chico State, Dr. Georgia Fox, professor of Archeology at Chico State, and Dr. Will Nitzky, with the Department of Anthropology, about recent events involving demonstrators calling for the removal of statues or taking them down by force.

For instance, demonstrators recently toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore and defaced another in Connecticut. In Sacramento, at the state capitol, a statue was also removed.

In other regions of the country, statues and symbols commemorating Thomas Jefferson and confederate generals have all come down.

Chico State Archeologist, Dr. Georgia Fox, says she does not believe the debate over the statues is going to diminish anytime soon and says it is healthy to have such debates.

Adrienne Scott, Curator of the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology at Chico State, says she believes such statues should be taken down.

“But maybe a few should remain so that we don’t forget,” explains Scott. “There are good ways that people remember the past but these are monuments of oppression; they are not really history.”

In Sacramento during the 4th of July holiday weekend, protestors toppled a statue of Father Junipero Serra. He was an 18th century Roman Catholic priest who founded nine of California’s 21 Spanish Missions. Native Americans were forced to stay at the missions after converting or face severe punishment.

"The California mission system was awful,” explains Dr. Fox. “What he represents is colonialism and this idea of subjugation of people to ensure the mission system. It was put in place to start industry for European powers.”

Yarbough asked the group if they believe any statues should be preserved but offer a more complete narrative.

"The removal of the monuments does not correct history,” says Dr. Nitzky. “However we need to think about the removal as a path to encourage dialogues of the memory of history."

The conversation also covered what the scholars called “social memory.” They say that is how a society collectively remembers events.
“When we start to have this larger discussion on the removal of statues it makes people not take things for granted,” says Dr. Nitzky.

“It represents a rejection of the symbols of white supremacy; it reflects an evolution of a larger societal shift that is happening across the country and the world.”

The academic members touched on the Legacy Museum in Alabama, which includes exhibits of the violent history of lynching in our country. They say the fact such a museum exists indicates people are more willing to confront all aspects of history.

“These are things that have been sanitized from our stories; they need to come forward in creative ways,” says Dr. Fox. “How easy is it for citizens to craft a narrative that is beneficial; people don’t want to hear the dark stuff.”

"We really need to dismantle oppression and we have to show it symbolically and there is empowerment in removing some of these statues,” says Scott. “There does not need to be a sea of confederate generals in our country but this is where we have the opportunity to keep some up and tell the story. And why not include the stories of Harriet Tubman and W.E.B. Du Bois; where are those statues?

Dr. Nitzky says, "When we start to have these larger discussions of the removal of statues, it makes people think about what is our history?, what is our past and how do we reflect on that?; it brings the discussion to the floor.”

The conversation concluded with a discussion about other symbols within our society which could possibly come under scrutiny; such as U.S. money; paper bills with images depicting many of whom were known owners of enslaved Africans.

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It was a bright and breezy Friday for northern California, however the wind has been much stronger over Modoc County where a High Wind Warning is in effect through this evening. Stronger wind and cooler air will define our weather Saturday.
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