America’s 50,000 monuments: More mermaids than congresswomen, more Confederates than abolitionists
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By Gillian Brockell, The Washington Post
Hundreds of public monuments have come down amid the racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd last year. Some were toppled by protesters armed with rope; others have been disassembled and carted away by professionals hired by local governments.
These removals may seem, well, monumental. But according to a study of U.S. public monuments, they’re a drop in the bucket, representing a mere 0.6 percent of the country’s nearly 50,000 monuments — monuments to historical figures who skew overwhelmingly White and male, including people who enslaved others, fought for the Confederacy, or never even set foot on American soil.
So who has been commemorated most often in stone, metal or wood? Unsurprisingly, Abraham Lincoln tops the list of historical figures most frequently honored with a public monument (193), edging out George Washington (171), according to the “National Monument Audit” by the nonprofit Monument Lab.
Christopher Columbus — who never visited mainland North America — comes in third, followed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. At No. 5 is Saint Francis of Assisi, who also never contributed directly to American history, given that he died in Italy in 1226.
Of the men on the top 50 list, more than half were enslavers. Twelve were generals, 11 presidents and four Catholic saints or missionaries. Four were leaders of the Confederacy. Three men in the top 50 are men of color: King, Tecumseh and Frederick Douglass.
None of the top 50 were openly gay or transgender.
In public monuments, women are more often depicted as mythological and fictional figures than as historical ones. There are 22 public monuments that include mermaids but only two of congresswomen: one each for Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) and Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.).
While many who oppose the removal of Confederate monuments have argued that it is tantamount to forgetting history, the authors of the report say the data shows something like the opposite has been happening for hundreds of years — that in fact, our monument landscape has given us the mistaken impression that White men, and particularly White military men, are most worthy of honor and remembrance. It minimizes the contributions of others to these men’s achievements and ignores historical figures who made achievements in, say, civil rights, peace or public health.
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