It didn’t take a protest. It didn’t take a petition. It didn’t even take an official request.
Apparently just the concern that campus statues of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin might draw racial unrest, protests or vandalism prompted Washburn University leaders to quietly and preemptively remove the bronze Founding Fathers after a conversation with the pieces’ donor family.
The statues were removed in July, Washburn spokesperson Patrick Early told The College Fix in a telephone interview Friday. But their removal from the Topeka, Kansas-based public university was first reported in local news outlets only last week.
Early said there were no specific protests against the statues to prompt their eviction, but that at the University of Missouri its Jefferson statue had become a “lightning rod” of controversy and there was concern the same could happen at Washburn.
Since news of their removal circulated in Kansas news outlets, Early said he’s fielded only “a handful of phone calls” of concern over the decision.
He also said the statues of the Founding Fathers were not unique, and in fact they are among hundreds of replicas across the nation. He said that, in contrast, most of the artwork displayed on campus are original pieces, and much of that modern art.
According to the university’s website, the life-sized bronze likeness of Franklin was installed in 2000 at the north entrance of the law school, and the life-sized bronze likeness of Jefferson was installed in May 2002 south of its law school. Created by sculptor George Lundeen, they were donated by Gerald and Shannon Michaud.
Early said in conversation with the donors’ family, Washburn President Jerry Farley “raised the question of the best thing to do” with the statues, and this decision was reached.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reports Gerald Michaud was a Washburn Law alumnus who donated the statues and has since passed away, and the statues were returned to his family.
“In place of the statues, the university installed the same blue benches located at other spots around campus. Most of the university’s other statues are modern art, with the exception of a relatively recent statue of Ichabod Washburn that the university commissioned,” the Journal reports.
Although Franklin has largely been left out in the recent racial unrest, Jefferson has not.
At Mizzou, which is about a three-hour drive from Washburn, a statue of Jefferson there has prompted protests for several years.
Students tried to get it removed five years ago during the racial upheaval that had wracked the campus, calling it “offensive” and “oppressive.” When a group of conservative students defended the statue, they were dubbed “literally the epitome of privilege” and accused of celebrating a “predatory slave owner.”
More recently, in June 2020, a petition was launched that stated “Mizzou has no room for a racist slave owner on our campus, in the Quad, where thousands of black students pass by everyday.”
Despite the uproar, Mizzou campus leaders refused to remove the statue after a debate.
“The conversation was an example of the power of civil discourse and included discussion of complex issues and different perspectives,” University of Missouri System President and interim MU Chancellor Mun Choi said in a statement June 12.
“After further discussion with other curators, the university decided not to remove the Jefferson statue. We learn from history. We contextualize historical figures with complex legacies. We don’t remove history.”