As protests involving the Black Lives Matter movement continue throughout the nation, many University of Wisconsin students have begun to call for the removal of the Abraham Lincoln statue that sits proudly atop Bascom Hill despite its ties to the racist history that enshrouds the U.S.
The statue itself has been a largely beloved figure in the past, guiding generations of Badgers to their futures beyond UW in the form of a good luck charm. Several UW traditions surround him, where students rub his nose and even sit on his lap to steer prosperity their way.
In his role as the 16th President of the United States, Lincoln’s arguably most important achievement came from the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
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The Lincoln statue itself, however, has less-than-pristine origins. A UW Facebook group petitioning for the removal of the Lincoln statue shed light on the donors to the statue, which includes one Richard Lloyd Jones, “a known racist and journalist who frequently published articles instigating violence against Black people.”
With this in mind, it is no wonder the Wisconsin Black Student Union has called for the complete removal of the Lincoln statue, believing it to be anti-Black as well as anti-Native — Bascom Hill, where the statue is situated, is stolen Ho-Chunk ground. In fact, the entirety of UW originates from the Ho-Chunk people.
There has been pushback against the petition, including a counter-petition calling for the Lincoln statue to stay up. Chancellor Rebecca Blank herself has supported the efforts to preserve the statue, stating the past should “not be erased but examined.” Blank continued by stating Lincoln’s legacy deserves to be “both celebrated and critiqued.”
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But, something both the supporters of the counter-petition and Blank do not seem to realize is by removing the Lincoln statue, history will not be erased or forgotten. Many have accurately pointed out that those who look at the Lincoln statue do not see his racist donors. In the same light, we do not see the accurate history of land on which UW stands. We do not see the suffering of the Ho-Chunk people or the state of slavery as it was during Lincoln’s time.
Still, it is difficult to completely dismiss the Lincoln statue as even with its origins, Lincoln himself did bring about major change toward abolishing the intuition of slavery.
By preserving the statue, UW is indeed preserving Lincoln’s legacy — good and bad.
“He signed acts that ordered a lot of Native Americans killed … [and] wiped out a lot of their villages and their tribes,” Wisconsin Black Student Union President Nalah 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 [and] State Street, is kind of just an everyday reminder that these students really don’t belong here.”
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Removing the statue and perhaps adding another figure — one that sheds a more positive light on the struggles of BIPOC students — might lead to minority students feeling more at home at UW. After all, having a statue of large cultural value on campus commemorating the legacy of minorities in the country would be a clear move on UW’s part to welcome its BIPOC students.
The conversation regarding the significance of statues in Wisconsin is an important one. Those whose legacies we choose to protect are a direct reflection of current times, and the debate on preserving Lincoln’s statue will inevitably affect future generations of Badgers and how they perceive UW.