Response to University Announcement of the Removal of Stephen A. Douglas Plaque and Stone
On July 7, 2020, President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee announced that they have “directed the removal of a bronze plaque of Stephen A. Douglas in Hutchinson Commons and a stone from the ‘Old University of Chicago,’ which had been mounted in the wall of the Classics Building” claiming that Douglas “had no connection to the University of Chicago that was founded in 1890.” For fuller context on the erection of this plaque, installation of the stone, and the University of Chicago’s connection to the Old University and slavery, listen to our audio tour stop on the Douglas Hall Cornerstone.
The University has not always been so quick to dismiss its connection with Douglas. When the plaque was given to the University in 1901 as a gift from the senior class, class president A.E. Bestor gave an address, saying “This tablet is erected to the memory of the Honorable Stephen Arnold Douglas who, by his generous interest in education, founded the old University of Chicago... This tablet is significant too of the bond that should bind the students of the new University of Chicago to alumni of the old.” (“The Class-Day Exercises,” The University Record, Vol. 6, No. 13, June 1901, p 74). In 1956, the Maroon reported that “in 1857 the University was founded,” and that “the old University and the Baptist Union Theological Seminary were the forerunners of the present University,” reflecting a general knowledge of the present university’s origins in the campus founded by Douglas (“UC has varied history; Civil War took toll,” The Daily Maroon, September 18, 1953, p. 1).
In 1919, the University publication The University Record, lamented the “political prejudice and opposition” against Douglas in the wake of the Civil War, but declared that it was “short-lived. Three and a half years later Senator Douglas died honored by every loyal citizen for his patriotic course… And thus it came to pass that the connection of Stephen A. Douglas with the new institution, which for a time threatened the enterprise with disaster came to be one of its enduring glories. The relation was honorable to the University and to the man alike.” (Goodspeed, Thomas W. “The Founding of the First University of Chicago,” The University Record, Vol. V, No. 3, July 1919, p. 247).
For nearly a century, the University administration has tried to have it both ways regarding its connections to the original campus. In 1924 the same author in the same University publication claimed that “The present University of Chicago never had the slightest connection with the institution Mr. Douglas helped to found,” while in the very same paragraph acknowledging that “it received from that institution its name” and “the new school also inherited, if only by adoption, the alumni of the old one.” The author concludes the paragraph—in direct contradiction to its opening statement—that “When Stephen A. Douglas gave the site of the first University of Chicago he was in fact laying the foundations of the greater University that was to come.” (Goodspeed, Thomas W., “Stephen Arnold Douglas,” The University Record, Vol. X, No. 1, January 1924, p. 64-65).
In 2017, several graduate students worked with local racial justice organizations to make these connections explicit. Building on their research, they articulated demands for reparations from the University of Chicago. In response, the administration denied its relationship to Douglas and rebuffed the call for institutional change.
Why remove the stone now? A trend of removing and renaming monuments and memorials has taken the world by storm. Recently, the state government of Virginia removed a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond with great pomp and circumstance, and the board of Princeton University voted to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy, citing Wilson’s “racist thinking and policies.” Historical figures identified with slavery are being disavowed, and rightfully so. At first glance, this is the perfect moment for the University of Chicago to reckon with its history, too. Rather than identifying itself with a slave-owning congressman, it has chosen to remove the stone and denounce the man it honors in a public announcement.
This is a convenient moment to disappear an embarrassing moment in the University’s history, but there is a price to pay for removing uncomfortable histories from within our midst: a potential forgetfulness of a shameful past, thus denying its very existence. This history happened. The University of Chicago is historically linked to the old university and to slavery. It must own it and take responsibility. The symbolic purpose of removing the stone is worthy. Indeed, we agree with the President and Provost that “Douglas does not deserve to be honored on our campus,” but we do have an obligation to remember his connection with our university. The deliberate erasure of a shameful chapter in the University’s history is not as honorable as Robert Zimmer and Ka Yee C. Lee would have us think. It is simply a convenient moment to rewrite history and forget about what really matters: material reparations, robust and concrete anti-racist policy, and an honest account of this institution’s origins.
Reparations at the University of Chicago
Caine Jordan, Guy Emerson Mount, and Kai Perry Parker. “‘A Disgrace to all slave-holders’: The University of Chicago’s Founding Ties to Slavery and the Path to Reparations.” The Journal of African American History 103, no.1-2 (Winter/Spring 2018): 163-178.
"A Case for Reparations at the University of Chicago" digital exhibit
Follow @TheRAUC on Twitter or RAUC on Facebook for updates on the campaign.
Bibliography for Audio Tour
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