Viewpoints

Who deserves a monument? In San Luis Obispo, Teddy Roosevelt makes the cut

This is an artist rendition of the Theodore Roosevelt Monument proposed for Mitchell Park in San Luis Obispo.
This is an artist rendition of the Theodore Roosevelt Monument proposed for Mitchell Park in San Luis Obispo.

Last month I returned from Lima, Peru, after a two-week immersion in the Andes on the same day that deadly violence broke out when white supremacists protested the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville.

What I witnessed in Lima — and what I did not see — bears directly on the tragic events in Virginia.

Peru has a unique mix of ethnicities, from the cosmopolitan streets of Miraflores to the high Andean herders in colorful woven ponchos and chullo hats tending their herds of llamas and alpacas. Its 30 million people are 45 percent Amerindian/Quechuan, 15 percent white and roughly one-third mixed native and European, mostly Spanish.

What I did not see in Lima was the controversial statue of Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who seized and executed the reigning Inca monarch Atahualpa in 1532. Pizarro sacked the highly developed Inca culture centered in Cusco, which in its prime had extended from Colombia to Chile.

In 1935, to commemorate its quaternary, the city of Lima installed an immense bronze statue of Pizarro. Generations of Peruvians cowered before Pizarro’s unsheathed sword at the entrance to the main Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, the very center of power in that colonial city.

Today, however, it’s hard to find. I never did. The sorry fate of Pizarro’s Lima statue provides an interesting lesson to Americans today.

Over the course of the 20th century, the conquistador’s statue had become far less popular with Peruvians: In 1950, it was moved to a less visible corner of the Plaza, but even there it served mostly as an impromptu outdoor urinal. Visitors were advised to avoid that part of the Plaza de Armas. Then in 2003, a newly-elected mayor ordered it removed altogether to the Parque Muralla, an obscure location, without his elevated pedestal—a clear rebuke to Pizarro for his role in destroying Peru’s heritage half a millennium ago.

Those who support removing Robert E. Lee’s statue from its prominent place in Charlottesville seek a similar obscurity for General Lee, igniting a violent campaign by white supremacists and neo-Nazis to defend the statue.

Why has opposition arisen now to Confederate monuments in virtually every Southern city? The controversy stems from the dishonorable intent of those who had sponsored these monuments: Almost all were installed during the Jim Crow era — a hateful time, when Southern whites sought to cement (literally) their dominant place at the top of the social order, conspiring to strip people of color of their civil rights and basic human dignity.

The wounds inflicted by 250 years of slavery and 80 years of Jim Crow are still very raw, well into the present. Occupying prominent parks and plazas, these monuments to Confederate “heroes” pour a daily dose of salt into those wounds, keenly felt by black Southerners who continue to hear echoes of their ancestors’ grief.

Should we support removing these monuments? In my view, these decisions are best made by local communities, based on the individual historical context and the story that they tell. We should honor a community’s decision to tell a more complete story, a less distorted story.

Donald Trump (and others) argue that removing these monuments is an attempt to “erase history.” This is hardly the case: The goal is to correct a version of history that sanitized and beatified the “Lost Cause” of Southern secession, shifting the subject from slavery and its manifest evil. Today’s history honors those who bore the brunt of the struggle for emancipation, for civil rights, and for a full recognition of our American promise.

Another warning from those opposing removal of Confederate monuments is the infamous slippery slope argument, suggesting that activists next want to erase images of our slave-owning Founding Fathers such as Washington or Jefferson. Nobody, however, wants to remove these men from our pantheon; the Founders represent an honorable and enduring legacy.

And nobody wants to remove statues of Theodore Roosevelt, either, though Trump insisted otherwise in his Phoenix rally last month. Just the opposite is true: We’re working to create a new monument to “Teddy” here in San Luis Obispo, focusing on his role not as a conquistador, but as a. conservationist. Roosevelt visited this city on May 9, 1903, midway through his historic 14,000-mile, 25-states rail tour of the West. He spoke to a crowd estimated at 10,000 in today’s Mitchell Park, issuing a strong call for conservation. As president, he protected 230 million acres of public lands in national forests, parks and monuments.

The Roosevelt monument will feature a bronze statue by Paula Zima, a Cal Poly graduate who contributed the bear-and-child sculpture in Mission San Luis Obispo, as well as many other works. She’s envisioned a seated Roosevelt, as he appeared when he shared a campfire with John Muir in Yosemite later that month—Roosevelt the naturalist, among boulders and trees, inviting visitors to have a conversation.

The monument will cost about $150,000 all in. ARTS Obispo, the non-profit council that promotes the arts throughout the county, is raising funds for the project, and we hope for installation in Fall 2018. To contribute, please visit http://artsobispo.org/tr-monument, or call 805-544-9251.

John Ashbaugh is a former San Luis Obispo City Council member. He teaches U.S. history and global studies at Hancock College.

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