As the racist relics of the American South come slowly down — most recently statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were removed in New Orleans — it’s awfully easy to feel smug up here in New England. We don’t have any of those nasty, historically tainted works of public art here, do we?
Wait — do we?
Governors and generals, businessmen philanthropists and political titans, explorers of the globe and ministers of the faith, abolitionists and artists: As in most other cities, these are the figures who top the pedestals and line the public spaces of Boston. Many of the memorials have been in place for more than a century, a culturally immense span of time in which the reputations of the famous are subject to changing social and moral attitudes — when they’re remembered at all.
So the question is worth asking: Are we giving some of these memorials, and the history behind them, a pass simply because they’re cast in stone? The public art being removed in the South has issues of provenance, many of them having been put in place years after the Civil War by whites pushing against Reconstruction policies and aiming to re-establish racist dominance. The statuary up here generally springs from less ignoble impulses, but there are skeletons in various closets. No Great Man is all great. Some are decidedly less so, especially in retrospect.
There’s a street, a T stop, and a medical center named for former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, for example, but there are no statues, and, given what we now know of his feelings about black ballplayers, there probably won’t be. Cardinal Bernard Law lives on in the Vatican but not in the public art of his longtime city. There are people who wonder why we keep putting up statues to the Kennedys. And there are some memorials whose placement and even reasons for existence seem a mystery.
But which of these might rightly offend a 21st century sensibility? A dip into the history books, a visit to the Boston Art Commission’s website detailing all public art (www.publicartboston.com), and an engaging chat with Peter Drummey, the Stephen P. Riley librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, have resulted in the following, highly unofficial and subjective list of Boston statues to make you go hmmmm.
Christopher Columbus (1979; Andrew J. Mazzola, sculptor; Christopher Columbus Park near Atlantic Avenue). Well, sure, we celebrate his 1492 arrival in the Bahamas as a national holiday, and he’s a lasting figure of cultural pride to the Italian-American community in the North End and across the country. But Columbus and his entourage also introduced smallpox, syphilis, and slavery to the New World, and his Colonial polices and his men were directly responsible for the decimation of the native population of the island of Hispaniola. Wrote the eminent Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison in 1955, “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”
Curiously, a much larger statue of the explorer once stood outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End, paid for by the Knights of Columbus. In 1922, for reasons unclear, Cardinal William O’Connell summarily had it removed and trucked off to Revere, where it still stands before St. Anthony’s Church. Why the exile? An aesthetic decision? Or a powerful Irish-American prelate putting an upstart Roman Catholic community in its place? “It’s sort of hard not to think that something’s going on here,” speculates Drummey.
Samuel Eliot Morison (1982, Penelope Jencks, Commonwealth Avenue Mall between Exeter and Fairfield streets). That eminent historian quoted above? He doesn’t get off scot-free, either. The author of dozens of popular histories, Morison (1887-1976) used language in his writings on slavery that chafed readers even in the 1920s, sentiments along the lines of “As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its ‘peculiar institution’” (from “The Oxford History of the United States, 1783-1917”). Morison defended the use of such terms as “pickaninnies” on historical grounds, but after years of pressure from civil rights groups, he agreed to change the language in later editions of his works.
Henry Cabot Lodge (1932, Raymond Porter, State House lawn near Beacon Street). A member of the top tier of Boston’s social elite, Lodge (1850-1924) was a major player in American government during the Gilded Age and the first years of the 20th century. A conservative Republican and the first Senate majority leader, he was a staunch believer in American imperialism, backing the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, an atrocity-heavy affair that left as many as 250,000 Filipinos dead. He fought to restrict immigration, believed that Northern Italians with “Teutonic” blood were superior to Southern Italians, and warned against the mixing of “higher” and “lower” races.
John Endecott (1937, Ralph Weld Gray and Carl Paul Jennewein, The Fenway, just to the east of the Museum of Fine Arts). The longest-serving governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Endecott (1588-1664/5) arrived here in 1628 and co-founded a village called Naumkeag, later to become Salem. His intolerance, religious and otherwise, seems to have been evenly spread around: A Separatist Puritan, Endecott had Baptists whipped and Quakers tortured; three Quakers, including Mary Dyer (who has her own statue on the State House grounds), were executed by hanging. He also fomented the Pequot War with atrocities against the natives that ensured they’d rise up against other colonists, thus guaranteeing the tribe’s destruction in 1637.
Abraham Lincoln (1879, Thomas Ball, Park Square). It is, of course, not the subject that has rankled people over the years but the statue itself, a copy of an original still standing in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Square. Properly named “The Emancipation Group,” it depicts Lincoln standing over a freed slave bowing subserviently at the great man’s feet — “an unfortunate appearance,” wrote one historian, of “the negro polishing the President’s boots.” The statue was paid for by contributions from freed slaves who had no say over the design or choice of artist; according to his autobiography, Ball, the sculptor, wouldn’t let a black man into his house to model for the statue. As noted by one historian present, Frederick Douglass departed from his remarks at the 1876 dedication of the original statue to observe dryly that “a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”
General Joseph Hooker (1903, Daniel Chester French, State House east wing entrance). Now we get into the category known as Why Are These Statues Even Here At All? Hooker (1814-1879) was born and raised in Hadley, but he’s best remembered as the Union general who lost the Battle of Chancellorsville to Robert E. Lee in 1863 when victory might have ended the war. “Hooker didn’t have a very good reputation as a soldier or as a person,” says the Historical Society’s Drummey, speculating that the statue’s existence reflects the political power of veterans groups at the turn of the 20th century. Not everyone was on board, he notes, citing a former MHS president who’d cross the street to avoid the memorial. Drummey also quotes Charles Francis Adams, descendant of two presidents and a Union veteran, who felt “a sense of wrong and insult” at Hooker’s presence.
Leif Eriksson (1887, Anne Whitney, Commonwealth Avenue Mall near Charlesgate). Why on Earth is there a statue of the 10th Century Norse explorer on the Comm. Ave. mall? For the same reason there’s a stone tower out by Route 128 in Weston on the spot where Eriksson supposedly built a fort six centuries before the arrival of the Pilgrims. (Historical note: He didn’t.) Eben Horsford, a 19th-century chemist and benefactor of Wellesley College who made his fortune in baking powder, fervently believed that the Vikings got here first and commissioned both tower and statue. Well-intentioned though he was, Horsford was at the vanguard of a popular nativist school of thought that, per Drummey, felt that “maybe having a Nordic discoverer of America was ‘better’ than having someone from Spain by way of Italy.”
Arthur Fiedler Memorial (1984, Ralph Helmick, Charles River Esplanade). Can I have one that’s strictly personal? I was Fiedler’s paperboy in Brookline in the early 1970s. No lie: I still recall bicycling that 30-pound sack of copies of the Boston Herald Traveler and Record American up Fisher Hill, and I still remember the venerable conductor throwing a rock at my head when I interrupted his gardening to ask him to pay his long overdue bill. I know, I know, everybody just loves the man who led the Boston Pops for 50 years. But if you want a memorial to the crabby old guy from the “Scooby-Doo” cartoons, here’s your statue.