Following a surge of protests taking down and challenging statues with racist origins around the world, University of Wisconsin students and organizations have demanded the Abraham Lincoln statue on Bascom Hill be removed due to its racist origins.
Perched at the top of Bascom Hill, Abraham Lincoln overlooks Madison from a granite pedestal. As the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves legally free within the Confederacy in 1863.
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For years, the statue on Bascom has been considered a campus icon. Graduates sit in his lap for graduation pictures before tackling the challenges of the future. Students even rub his nose for good luck, according to the Wisconsin Street Journal.
The statue’s presence remained mostly unchallenged until three weeks ago when UW graduate Angela Peterson released a petition on a UW Facebook Group page demanding for the statue’s removal from campus grounds.
Despite its prevalence in campus culture, the statue has a complicated history that was brought to light during the wave of Black Lives Matter protests around the country. Peterson started the petition, and following the post of the petition, many students engaged in a debate on the page about the statue’s place on campus through a series of posts.
Wisconsin Black Student Union President Nalah McWhorter said the BSU wants the complete removal of the Abraham Lincoln statue. The BSU has put forward demands for removal, declaring the statue anti-Black and anti-Native.
“I just think he did, you know, some good things … the bad things that he’s done definitely outweighs them,” McWhorter said. “And I do want the 100% removal of the statue. I don’t want it to be moved somewhere or anything like that. I want it removed.”
According to the petition, one of the primary donors of the statue was Richard Lloyd Jones — a known racist and journalist who frequently published articles instigating violence against Black people. Additionally, as owner of the Tulsa Tribune, Jones published the article that is commonly attributed with inciting the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Another donor, Thomas Brittingham Jr., was a known member of the Ku Klux Klan.
BSU released a statement further explaining why Lincoln was anti-Black and anti-Native. Apart from signing acts which negatively impacted the lives of many Native Americans, Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men on Dec. 26, 1862 — one of the largest executions in U.S. history.
Lincoln’s military commission conducted unfair trials and sentenced 303 men to death, according to The Nation. UW rising sophomore Jacob Laufgraben, who argued against the removal of the statue, said Lincoln considerably reduced that number by commuting the sentences of 265 men. Thirty-nine names were forwarded by Lincoln, of which one man was acquitted. It was later found out that two men had been mistakenly hanged.
“I think when people say, okay, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves … I think that’s looking at a very small piece of his presidency at the time,” McWhorter said. “So you can kind of see, here you freed the slaves, but you also did this and this and this and that. And then when you show that to people, it’s kind of hard to deny those facts in history.”
A counter-petition was started by Laufgraben to keep the statue. Laufgraben’s petition acknowledges the statue’s racist ties and asks for the statue to not be removed. The petition states a plaque could be set at the base of the statue, acknowledging the statue’s sordid origins and Lincoln’s legacy.
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Laufgraben said the goal of the petition is not to brush over the racist history of the donors — particularly the connection of Llyod to the destruction of Black Wall Street in the Tulsa Massacre, which his article helped incite. Instead, Laufgraben argues that the positive legacy of the statue itself on campus should be considered.
“I do not seek to deny this history… but I do think that the racist legacy that the statue inherited from three founders has been overshadowed by the value that it has brought to this campus,” Laufgraben said. “It’s been a unifying factor for decades. Freshmen have been able to rub their hands on the toes of Lincoln, and graduates of all walks of life sit on a slab and graduate. But I think that the legacy it’s inherited in that regard — has been overshadowed.”
McWhorter said the pushback is unsurprising since the statue is ingrained into UW culture and history. Though Laufgraben’s petition mentions the statue’s racist donors, Lincoln’s racism and the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 that Lincoln signed into law — displacing Native Americans from their land into reservations — McWhorter said Laufgraben’s petition “sweeps those things under the rug.”
McWhorter said people’s first thought about Lincoln is he freed slaves. While Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, McWhorter explained he was anti-Black. Lincoln did not believe whites and Blacks should have equal rights.
Laufgraben’s petition states Lincoln should be judged by the context of history, which McWhorter said is “kind of complete B.S.” McWhorter said the context of history shouldn’t justify Lincoln’s negative actions, but Laufgraben said Lincoln’s good actions and the value of the statue on campus has overshadowed the statue’s origins.
“People sometimes in the comments [of the petition] were trying to portray me as, like, some sort of right-wing activist, and this couldn’t be further from the truth,” Laufgraben said. “I’m gay. I’m Jewish. I voted for Bernie Sanders. Like I said, I donated to the Black Lives Matter movement. But ultimately, I’m guided by my conscience, and I think that President Lincoln ultimately brought about an immense amount of moral good to this country. And I honestly believe that the value that this statue has, has overshadowed its original origins.”
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McWhorter said removing the statue would be one way for UW to acknowledge the racist history the campus has. According to McWhorter, UW says they are committed to the students who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color. But she said the students need UW to put actions behind their words.
In a statement to the Badger Herald, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said UW will continue to support the statute of Lincoln on campus. Blank explained as the leader of UW, she believes that Abraham Lincoln’s legacy should “not be erased but examined.” Blank wrote Lincoln’s legacy deserves to be “both celebrated and critiqued.”
Blank wrote public land-grant universities, such as UW, might not exist without Lincoln. She said UW recognizes the act that created these universities relied on money from land expropriated from Native Americans. Additionally, UW is in conversations with a variety of campus stakeholders and partners about how to do better in addressing racism in the campus’ history. Current efforts include both a public history project and a land acknowledgment in recognition that the university sits upon Ho-Chunk land.
“We have a lot of work to do here at the university to address systemic racism and oppression, and there is a role for every member of our community,” Blank wrote in her statement. “In addition to the resources and initiatives already underway, I will be sharing some new actions and commitments soon. I invite you to join us in these efforts to build a better, more inclusive campus.”
McWhorter said compared to other schools, UW has not put out enough statements in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which sparked nationwide protests, including many in Madison.
Though UW sent students emails after the protests, McWhorter said she does not feel they fully addressed the situation, especially for Black students on campus. Removing the statue would show UW’s commitment and support for the BIPOC students on campus, she said.
“There’s a lack of urgency,” McWhorter said. “And I don’t think they really understand. These are the types of things that need to get moving. Black people are dying today in the streets every day by police officers. And for a university that already has a history of problems with their Black students, it just doesn’t feel like they care.”
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According to McWhorter, the problem is the statue does not have “any type of real significance” to many UW students.
McWhorter said removing the statue is one way UW can show they care for their BIPOC students. She said this would make a great first step, and show that UW is not just saying words, but investing in actions too.
“They also know the fact that he signed acts that ordered a lot of Native Americans killed … wiped out a lot of their villages and their tribes,” McWhorter said. “And so for Black and Native students on campus having to walk up that hill every day, having to see that statue overlook downtown Madison, State Street, is kind of just an everyday reminder that these students really don’t belong here.”