Jamie Stiehm: Statues face a hard look

Summary: Americans are taking a hard look at our heroes, pondering if we've worshipped false gods among the Founding Fathers.


WASHINGTON — Statues are all the rage as the house of American history came under fire from street protests for racial justice.

Statues do more than honor the dead. Stone speaks to us, the living, about privilege, power and place.

Statues are not always reliable narrators of "history."

Confederate statues are defiant symbols of white male supremacy, which is why they're the public sculptures President Donald Trump holds dearest.

A statue of fierce Andrew Jackson, a slave owner president, was almost taken down by protestors outside the Oval Office. Jackson was not a Confederate, but he was still close to Trump's heart.


There's a move afoot to remove a park statue of Abraham Lincoln here in D.C. because it portrays an emancipated man of color taking a knee and looking up at the Civil War president. Frederick Douglass gave a famous address at the Freedmen's Memorial in 1876.

Don't take it down.

I knew the world was changing when I asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., about the Christopher Columbus statue toppled and tossed in Baltimore's Inner Harbor with no police action. The topic was close to home. Pelosi grew up there as the popular mayor's daughter.

The Baltimore-born Speaker gave a crisp answer on her hometown and old Little Italy neighborhood: "If the community doesn't want the statue, the statue shouldn't be there."

That startled some reporters in the room. The topic quickly went viral online.

Chad Pergram, a congressional correspondent for Fox News, followed my question: "Respectfully, shouldn't that be done by a commission or the city council, not by a mob in the middle of the night?"

Pelosi responded, "People will do what they do."

Under the pandemic and the economy's summer storm, some statues can fall where they may. Yet Pelosi aims to clear out the Capitol's Confederate statues now, at this burning turning point.


Sometimes, history happens all at once.

"We know they are not worth it if they committed treason against the United States," she stated.

Americans are taking a hard look at our heroes, pondering if we've worshipped false gods among the Founding Fathers.

Where does the social uprising against statues of Southern slave owners end? That's the question Southern lawmakers raise to quell "airbrushing" Confederates figures, as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell puts it.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were the wealthiest early presidents, with thousands of acres tilled by generations of enslaved people. The Virginia "planters" who enslaved hundreds of Black people called them "servants."

Let's learn to live with that self-evident, sordid truth. We've idealized the human founders on pedestals too long.

But the memorials are key touchstones for democracy's dialogue. Jefferson's shrine shows a confession on slavery: "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever."

Just after the Fourth of July, a white descendant of Thomas Jefferson argued for canceling his ancestor's pristine memorial on the Tidal Basin in The New York Times. Thanks, Lucian K. Truscott IV.


The idea would hold more weight from a Black descendant, don't you think?

Slavery was Jefferson's tragic flaw, which mirrored the nation he so eloquently envisioned. As we now know, Jefferson had a racially mixed family with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings, after his wife Martha died.

That "secret" branch gave narratives and handed down memories (and DNA) that finally led to a Black and white family reunion at Monticello, Jefferson's mountaintop mansion.

My mother surveyed outdoor art, noting that men are exclusively celebrated. On my avenue, a captivating Nelson Mandela statue stands outside the South African embassy. Just three marble figures of women are in the Capitol Rotunda, in one monument to women's suffrage.

Confederate marble figures are coming down faster than you can say "Robert E. Lee." Men who waged war — for slavery — against the United States oppressively commanded perches in Southern cities and the U.S. Capitol.

Actually, the 1890 horseback statue of Lee, which dominates Richmond, Virginia, still stands against the sky, but not for long. The community and governor want it gone with the wind.

"Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln. You know, heroes," Pelosi said in her parting comments.

"They would want us to be talking about the future ... about looking forward, not looking back."

Jamie Stiehm can be reached at

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