Looking at Whom is Being Honored with Public Statues

December 22, 2017
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By Dan Murphy

The majority of public statues and monuments found throughout the city memorialize white men while few depict women and people of color, and this discrepancy was the subject of a presentation and panel discussion on Monday, Dec. 11, at the Central Library of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.

“Boston is aware of its role as a historic city, but when you look around at the city’s statues and monuments, you notice something’s missing,” City Councilor Michelle Wu said in her opening remarks while introducing photographer, writer, educator and lecturer Susan Wilson.

During Wilson’s presentation called “Looking at Memorial through an Equity Lens: A Brief History of Boston Statutory,” she detailed its 160-year history, beginning with the 1856 installation at Old City Hall of the city’s first public statue depicting one of the country’s Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin.

The Civil War brought a moratorium on new statues in the city until a granite statue of another Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, was erected on the newly constructed Commonwealth Avenue Mall in 1865.

Four years later, Thomas Ball’s bronze, equestrian statue of George Washington was erected in the Public Garden and became, according to Wilson, the “prototype” for the Boston’s statues, depicting a “larger than life hero up on a pedestal.”

Wilson cited a bronze statue of Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell installed at City Hall two years ago as a promising indication that new statues in the city might be shifting away from the tradition of memorializing what she described as “white men on pedestals.”

With a limited amount of space in the city to erect new statues, Wilson further emphasized the necessity of picking worthy and appropriate subjects to memorialize going forward.

After her presentation, Wilson joined a panel discussion alongside artist and poet L’Merchie Frasier, who represented the Museum of African American History, Boston; Wing-kai To, author of “Chinese in Boston (1870-1965,” representing the Chinese Historical Society of New England; and Meg Campbell, co-founder of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

Campbell suggested that the city undertake an “equity audit” to determine those represented in the city’s statutory and make the results available online.

“I’d also like to see a moratorium on statues of white males for a while until women and people of color can catch,” Campbell said.

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