After much public outcry against a statue and plaza honoring Edwardsville’s namesake, Ninian Edwards, the city council announced it would rename the Ninian Edwards Plaza, last week during the Administration and Community Services Committee meeting.
However, no official plans have been decided regarding the statue’s placement. Groups calling for its removal cite many parts of Edwards’ history as one of Illinois’ first governors as reasons behind these demands. Edwards vetoed a law that would have completely abolished slavery in Illinois, and recommended the erradication of Indigenous people.
Edwardsville’s Administration and Community Services Committee consists of Alderman Art Risavy, Alderman Will Krause and Alderman S.J. Morrison, but other members of the Edwardsville City Council were in attendance at the meeting and gave input throughout. The council stated they would try to rename the plaza as quickly as possible and would make preparations to create an educational lithograph for the statue. Risavy laid out a possible plan for creating the lithograph, which would take longer than renaming the plaza.
“[I would like to cooperate with] two people from every group. Potentially the NAACP, the group to remove the statue, the group [of history professors] from SIUE, two aldermen and also citizens who may be interested, along with maybe a historian [who could] come up with that language for the … I no longer want to call it a plaque, because to me a plaque sounds small. I like the idea of an educational lithograph,” Risavy said.
Walter Williams, vice president of the local NAACP chapter, was in attendance, and he said the NAACP would be willing to help write the lithograph. Assistant Professor of Sociology Ezra Temko is a member of the group advocating for the relocation of the statue, and he said he would like to discuss things further with the rest of the group before stating his opinion.
City Clerk Emily Fultz read a total of 11 letters, which were sent to the council to be read during the meeting. All of the letters asked for the city council to either relocate, remove or at least try to better contextualize the statue of Edwards. Some of these letters explained stories of encountering racism in the city, but some of them were short and to the point, like the last letter read, which was from Latrice Lott.
“I am a 56-year-old Black woman that has lived in Edwardsville since 2008. Given that Ninian Edwards was not only a slaveholder, but that he actively worked to bring slavery to the state of Illinois, having a statue of him is a slap in the face to the Black residents of Edwardsville,” Lott wrote.
Of the public comments made at the ACS meeting, there was only one that was unrelated to the Ninian Edwards statue. Former Edwardsville Police Chief and City Administrator Ben Dickmann gave the first comment, and he said he felt the institution of slavery in the U.S. was deplorable, and Edwards’ opinions on it were as well. However, Dickmann said there are positives to Edwards’ life that are being overlooked.
“Edwards did what few, if anybody … [had] done, or would be willing to do: he cared for people dying from the then cholera epidemic … It was in Belleville where Edwards accepted what he knew would be his own demise. Edwards knew that caring for the gravely ill cholera victims would cause him to become infected, and eventually kill him, and it did,” Dickmann said. “Is that act of human kindness and compassion enough to overcome years of slave ownership? I don’t know … I have resigned myself to a realization that this is not my call to make.”
Leaders of the group demanding the statue’s relocation spoke as well. Grad student in business administration-management Asher Denkyirah of Glen Carbon, Illinois, SIUE Alumni Emily Klingensmith and Temko spoke in person, while other members of the groups spoke remotely. One of these remote speakers was Edwardsville resident Eden Vitoff. Vitoff said the debate on the statue primarily affects racial minorities, so their opinions should be heard and respected.
“It’s very easy for individuals who are white, who have immense privilege based on their race, like those on the council, like me, to speak at these ACS and city council meetings [and] to freely give our opinions without fear of repercussion … My sister is an Indigenous and Hispanic woman of color, and she’s asked me to relay to you today the fact that she has experienced quite a bit of racism throughout her time in Edwardsville. I won’t go into too much detail, but these aren’t always as explicit as someone saying ‘I hate people of color’ or denying someone the right to vote,” Vitoff said. “The continued reverence we give to a man who led the charrge to kill Indigenous people, who fought to keep slavery alive with all his power as governor, this is another such act of racism.”
The group advocating to relocate the statue will hold a protest Oct. 31.
The Alestle will continue to follow this story as it develops.