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Student activists seek to remove Lincoln statue at UW-Madison


Monument has long been a point of contention at the school

A petition launched by a University of Wisconsin Madison student calls for officials to remove and replace a statue of President Abraham Lincoln from Bascom Hill, a heavily traversed area on campus.

The petition, which began circulating about three weeks ago, does not mention that Lincoln did more for African Americans than perhaps any other president in the nation’s history and instead states his “history with race relations is questionable.”

“[T]his statue has nothing to do with the creation and continuation of education on UW-Madison’s campus and was merely a gift of political capital,” the petition states.

The petition points out that the statue was donated by Richard Lloyd Jones, an “ultra-racist” and instigator of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, which killed 12 people and injured 800. Jones was aided in funding the statue by Thomas Brittingham Jr., a known member of the KKK.

“We ask that the university consider removing the statue from Bascom and direct funding towards a new installation acknowledging the past, present and future of UW-Madison,” it states. “This statue stands on sacred and stolen Ho Chunk land, and whatever stands there should not stand as a reminder of racist legacies that contributed to this campus.”

As of Wednesday more than 300 had signed the petition. Its author, UW student Angela Peterson, told The College Fix in an interview that the petition was inspired by a meme.

“[T]his was made in conjunction with a meme on a meme page and the petition may appear more extreme than my personal opinion as a result,” Peterson said.

She went on to explain the motives behind her call to action.

“The university has consistently changed the narrative around the statue to make students believe it is there because of Lincoln’s involvement with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, when it is clear it is present due to Robert Lloyd Jones’ political ties,” she said via email.

When asked her thoughts on how the university can move forward, Peterson said: “I believe the university should acknowledge that it accepted the statue as a donation from an incredibly racist person in our national history and create some sort of acknowledgement and apology for that fact.”

The petition comes as demonstrators around the nation, as well as in the state of Wisconsin, topple statues of historical figures. The latest Lincoln statue debate has also been fueled by rising racial tensions on campus following eight nights of Black Lives Matter protests near Wisconsin’s state capitol building.

In Madison on Tuesday night, “protesters tore down two statues that have stood in front of the statehouse for decades — including one memorializing a Wisconsin abolitionist who died trying to end slavery during the Civil War,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

The statue was of famed abolitionist Col. Hans Christian Heg, who died fighting against the Confederate Army.

Meanwhile, activists are calling for a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. to be torn down, calling it “problematic” because the statue depicts Lincoln standing over a slave holding the Emancipation Proclamation, Fox News reports.

This is not the only time in the history of the University of Wisconsin that the Lincoln statue has been caught in the crosshairs of protest.

In 2015, as Black Lives Matter protests engulfed the campus, members of a then-new campus group called “About Race UW” proposed the removal of the statue.

In 2016, the statue was draped in a black tarp during a racial protest by students.

In 2017, the student government approved a resolution to educate the campus community about Lincoln’s “oppression.”

In the past, campus leaders have rebuffed such demands. In a statement provided to The College Fix on Thursday, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the “university continues to support the Abraham Lincoln statue on our campus.” (See entire statement below).

The Abraham Lincoln statue has been a part of UW tradition since it was placed on Bascom Hill in 1919. Campus legend states that if graduating students climb into Lincoln’s lap and whisper their plans for life after graduation, they will come true. Students who are not graduating, but dare to sit in Lincoln’s lap, will supposedly cause him to rise from his chair and kick them off the pedestal to the bottom of the hill.

Comments on the anti-Lincoln petition highlighted racism at UW and seek change.

“I’m signing because this school has normalized a culture of racism. It is difficult to be a person of colour [sic] on this campus,” one commenter wrote.

“I don’t want a racist’s gift as the centerpiece of my campus,” commented another petition signer. “I don’t care for tradition when it’s founded on oppression.”

While Peterson’s petition is gaining traction, not all UW students are in favor of bidding Abe farewell.

Another petition created by UW student Jacob Laufgraben defends the statue’s position in campus history.

“The two main donors of the statue were virulent racists… We do not seek to deny this fact,” Laufgraben’s petition reads. “However, we do seek to assert that in the century since the monument was erected, it has become a symbol of honor and unity for our university. A symbol that for decades, graduating badgers of all walks of life have gathered to celebrate their graduation from our institution. This is Abe’s enduring legacy.”

In addition, Laufgraben’s petition offers a form of compromise with those who seek to topple the historical monument.

“We are more than open to compromises regarding the future of the statue. It would be entirely appropriate to put a plaque on the base of the statue acknowledging the statue’s sordid origins, as well as President Lincoln’s legacy. If what it takes to preserve this piece of the university and American history is to put an asterisk next to it, then that is fine with us.”

Laufbraben’s petition has garnered about 500 signatures since its publishing.

“No one [who] looks at the statue sees the donors or anyone racist,” one commenter said. “They see Lincoln, the president who facilitated the Emancipation Proclamation and a symbol of our campus community.”

Laufgraben did not respond to requests from The College Fix seeking comment.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has warned protesters across the nation that under the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation Act, those found guilty of defacing a monument can receive fines and 10 years in jail.

Editor’s note: This article was updated Friday to include a statement from the petition’s author. Also after publication, the following statement was provided to The College Fix on Thursday by the campus media affairs division. The statement is from Chancellor Rebecca Blank:

As an educational institution whose mission is to serve and strengthen Wisconsin, our country and the world, our mission is to educate and to advance the boundaries of knowledge and understanding of the human condition. In pursuing our mission, we believe deeply in justice and equity for all people. UW–Madison continues to work on creating a diverse and inclusive campus that supports Black and BIPOC students, faculty and staff and the fight against racism.

We’re in conversations with a variety of campus stakeholders and partners about how to do more and do better. Current efforts include both a public history project and a land acknowledgement in recognition that the university sits upon Ho-Chunk land. Everyone agrees that there is much more to do.

The university continues to support the Abraham Lincoln statue on our campus. Like those of all presidents, Lincoln’s legacy is complex and contains actions which, 150 years later, appear flawed. However, when the totality of his tenure is considered, Lincoln is widely acknowledged as one of our greatest presidents, having issued the Emancipation Proclamation, persuaded Congress to adopt the 13th Amendment ending slavery and preserved the Union during the Civil War.

As the leader of UW–Madison, I believe that Abraham Lincoln’s legacy should not be erased but examined, that it should be both celebrated and critiqued. To give just one example – without Lincoln, public land-grant universities like ours might not exist. These universities have been engines of social mobility and economic growth for citizens who would never otherwise have had access to higher education. Yet we recognize that the very act that created these universities relied on money from land expropriated from Native Americans.

We have a lot of work to do here at the university to address system racism and oppression and there is a role for every member of our community. In addition to the resources and initiatives already under way, 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.

MORE: UW-Madison prof cheers protesters tearing down abolitionist, women’s progress statues

IMAGE: Eric E. Johnson / Flickr

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About the Author
Jackson Walker -- University of Wisconsin Madison