I am writing in response to the commentary on calls to remove Thomas Jefferson’s statue from MU’s Francis Quadrangle published July 3 in the Columbia Missourian.
Dr. Betty Houchin Winfield advocates judging the issue by three standards:
• Did Jefferson’s life fit the values of his era, even if we disagree today?
• Are his contributions still enduring today?
• What was the motivation for installing his statue?
She describes Jefferson as a “flawed” hero and implies slavery was a largely accepted practice during his lifetime, although abhorrent.
She further claims his ideas “lay the groundwork for abolitionists such as Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass.”
This misrepresents Jefferson’s context and political vision.
In 1772, when Jefferson was 29, abolitionists succeeded in fully outlawing slavery in Britain, joining most of Europe and many Pacific nations.
There were soon forceful efforts to extend abolition to the British colonies, represented famously by William Wilberforce. Slavery was undeniably controversial throughout Jefferson’s life.
The idea that his choices as a slave owner were largely congruent with the values of his time — even among other European-descended colonists, let alone enslaved people of African descent or Indigenous people — is misleading.
Jefferson’s vision of the political future of people emancipated from slavery, further, was far from Tubman’s or Douglass’s.
Jefferson advocated for a racially segregated nation post-slavery and the eventual forced expulsion of formerly enslaved people. Tubman and Douglass fought for political equality and self-determination for people of African descent.
Whatever MU’s motivations were to install Jefferson’s statue in 2001, arguments to remove or keep it must recognize history.
Should we continue to defend Jefferson as a hero? One of his descendants recently called for his memorial in D.C. to be replaced by another for Tubman.
If we want to honor emancipatory leadership, we should do the same.
Gloria G. McGillen is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at MU.