During the past few years, there has been a growing focus on monuments in America. While at their best, they honor noble and noteworthy people, they have also served as painful and tragic reminders of ways the use of public spaces can intimidate and rewrite history. While national attention has focused elsewhere in terms of this topic, the 7th grade recently decided to take stock of its home city.
As part of a multidisciplinary examination of the statues and monuments located throughout Chicago, 7th grade history students recently engaged in a project answering the questions: Who has been represented in Chicago’s monuments? Who has been left out? What should the criteria be for erecting a monument? What should Chicago’s next public monument be?
The “Chicago Monument Showdown” project began with students taking a close look at the city that surrounds them to determine if they could discern any trends and patterns reflected in Chicago’s current monuments. Using the Chicago Park District website, along with conventional tools, students compiled a spreadsheet of monuments around the city, keeping track of the gender, ethnicity, occupation, nationality and era associated with each of the featured individuals. They also plotted the locations of these statues on a map to get a sense of their geographical distribution in the city.
In analyzing their data, students generated original infographics that summarized their findings, determining that among the 72 monuments they catalogued:
- Looking at gender, 95% were male and 5% were female.
- Looking at race, 84% of the figures were white, 7% were black, and 8% reflected other races.
- Looking at nationality, 54% were American, 41% were European, 3% were Latin American and the remaining 2% were Asian.
- Looking at careers, 29% were politicians, 22% were writers, 13% were veterans, 10% worked in retail, 6% were artists of some type, 8% were scientists, 4% had careers in law, 4% were explorers, 1% were sports figures, 1% were religious figures and 1% worked in safety fields.
- Looking through time, 49% were from the 1800s, 22% were from the 1900s, 16% were from the 1700s and 1.6% were from the 900s, 1500s, 1600s and 2000s.
With 185 years of Chicago monument historical data, along with some clear trends and biases, students worked in small groups to determine the types of criteria to take into account when erecting contemporary monuments, as well as the people they felt would make ideal subjects for Chicago’s next monument based on these criteria. They placed particular emphasis on underrepresented groups. Research on their ideal subjects followed as each team developed a persuasive presentation validating their criteria for monument selection and how their subject for Chicago’s next monument fits these criteria.
In anticipation of students’ final presentations for this assignment, history teacher Anthony Shaker reached out to two Chicago aldermen to serve as guests of honor in the audience and share stories of their real-world monument-related experience in the city.
As part of the Chicago Monument Showdown presentations, 43rd Ward Alderman Michelle Smith and 4th Ward Alderman Sophia King listened intently as the students walked them through each step of their research, leading to their individual group criteria and recommendations for monuments, including Ida B. Wells, Michelle Obama, James L. Shelton (Chicago’s first black police officer) and Mahalia Jackson, to name a few.
When the students finished their presentations, Alderman Smith shared her knowledge about monument approvals and funding, noting the government often only gives permission and rarely pays for the monuments. Smith indicated the monuments are most often funded by the ethnic and/or professional organizations that wish to see the monument erected, not the city. She used the Statue of Liberty as an example. The statue itself was a gift, but private citizens raised the money for the base on which Lady Liberty stands.
Alderman King offered her perspective on monuments based on the current controversy surrounding the Balbo monument in Grant Park and the street that bears the same name. She discussed the dilemma that often occurs with controversial monuments: is it better to remove them or leave them in place, while providing updated plaques that explain the painful historical impact of the individual?
In the end, Shaker’s Chicago Monument Showdown gave students a timely way to reflect on the historical meaning and purpose of monuments, as well as the important opportunity to consider how the process might change moving forward.
for a reflection on this competition from Max Keller ’23.