MU needs more, not less, in the way of opportunities to engage in our American history. Thank goodness the Task Force for Contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson Statue report opted to keep the statue on the Francis Quadrangle.
Colleges and universities are valued and supported by society because they are a venue for discovery and discussion, not because they decide what ideas are popular. MU should add, not subtract, historical artifacts on its campus in order to stimulate discussion that includes criticism of our history. In that light, the Jefferson statue on the Francis Quadrangle should be preserved, protected and joined by additional statues to promote a more complete understanding of our history.
The report of the Task Force for Contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson statue calls for placing a “wayside sign” explaining why the statue is on MU’s campus, Jefferson’s accomplishments and shortcomings, including “his role as a slave owner and the father of children by an enslaved person he owned.” The task force suggests the sign include a QR code to an information source such as Ellis Library’s guide.
Outdoor statues are different than museums. Statues can be a gathering point for discussion and demonstrations but can also be a still place for solitude. Passersby, be they students on the way to class, families bringing their sons and daughters for their first college visit or kids playing frisbee on the quad, can just glance and wonder or stop and reflect.
The task force’s report is a necessary first step, but it falls short of what MU should do to promote a more comprehensive understanding of race in America. MU should undertake a narrowly-focused campus-wide discussion centered on two topics:
What should MU do to present a contemporary understanding of Jefferson?
What statue should join the Jefferson statue on Francis Quadrangle as a visible and permanent reminder to the MU community and visitors of the significant contributions of African Americans who are underappreciated in our history?
I offer two specific suggestions to keep the conversation going.
First, MU should adopt a day for all students, staff and faculty to better acquaint themselves with the latest quality scholarship about Jefferson. I propose a day of reading and hearing the works of Harvard law and history professor Annette Gordon-Reed. She is the author of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1996), which challenges prevailing arguments against Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’ children and details oversights and bias, and the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (2008). Of course, many Gordon-Reed lectures and interviews are available on the internet.
On the one hand, the baby boom generation will be surprised by how much Jefferson scholarship has changed since we were in school. For example, a 1987 book by the late MU eminent historian Noble Cunningham observes “The evidence indicates that any Paris romance between Jefferson and Sally Hemings belongs in a work of fiction, not history.” Not so fast. By 1998, a DNA study in the journal Nature demonstrated that a male with Jefferson’s Y chromosome most likely fathered Eston Jefferson. In 2000, a report by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation concludes there is a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, and that he was likely the father of all six of Sally Hemings’ children listed in Monticello records.
On the other hand, millennials and today’s students might be surprised by how carefully Gordon-Reed reasons about our predecessors and the world they lived in. She examines the DNA and oral records of Jefferson’s offspring but sees Jefferson in human terms rather than a political icon and tries to figure out what he must have been thinking. She does not support removing Jefferson statues because she believes he is the essential American founder who cannot be removed and forgotten without leaving a hole in our history.
Second, I suggest that MU add another statue to Francis Quadrangle to balance our historical understanding of the neglect of African American accomplishments. There are lots of alternatives, including Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, Langston Hughes or more regional notable figures such as Lloyd Gaines, Annie Fisher, Scott Joplin or Lucile Bluford.
I prefer Frederick Douglass because he is the equal of Jefferson in breadth and depth of intellect, in articulation of democratic principles and in political accomplishments. I like the symbolism of them being linked together by the Fourth of July.
Additionally, Jefferson and Douglass both experienced public criticism for their personal lives. I imagine a statue of Douglass seated on a bench next to Jefferson as if they are conversing about their roles in American history.
Organizing a campus-wide reflection about Jefferson’s legacy and commissioning a companion statue for the Quad can be accomplished in one of several ways. MU President Mun Choi could reappoint and refocus the Task Force for Contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson Statue to lead the effort. Or the several administrative and academic offices at MU devoted to diversity, race education and democracy could be asked to work together to lead a campus “One Read” program and discussion. Or a variety of student groups activated by racial justice issues since 2015 could embrace a specific project with the overall goal of pushing the MU community in understanding our past. Or the Jefferson Club, the initiator and funder of the Jefferson statue that was installed back in 2001, might take up the challenge of assisting in MU’s public reexamination of Jefferson’s legacy.
Jefferson personifies the meandering and enduring history of American slavery as well as of our grand democratic aspirations. We cannot understand America today without struggling with that history. MU can set a standard for how public higher education struggles with that history.