Staff Editorial: It’s time to talk about George Washington, his statue and his legacy

A week ago, around 200 Washington University students participated in a protest in tribute to the lives of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo, two recent victims of police violence. The protest converged outside of Olin Library at the statue of George Washington, on which participants hung a banner that read, “Justice for Daunte.” The statue has been the subject of much campus conversation, especially since alumna Sabrina Sayed received a $1,516 fine after spray painting the statue during a march in the name of Walter Wallace Jr. These recent mobilization efforts have brought the statue, as well as George Washington himself, into a robust campus conversation about Wash. U.’s namesake and the line between understanding problematic history and celebrating it. 

It is the opinion of this Editorial Board that the George Washington statue outside Olin Library is distinctly celebratory and glorifies colonial systems that we should all be dedicated to dismantling. The inscription on the base of the statue only furthers this point, declaring that the statue was created in 2003 to “commemorate the 150th anniversary of Washington University in St. Louis.” Even without this inscription, statues in general are celebratory in nature, and this one fails to contextualize the complete, problematic legacy of the first president of the United States. 

The tension between this legacy and students on campus is especially evident in the priority with which the statue has been treated as compared to student activists. One of Sayed’s largest complaints with the University’s sanctions against her was the valuation of the damage to the statue instead of the concerns she as a student and activist was attempting to raise about the existence of the statue itself. The “Justice for Daunte Wright” banner, which remained hanging on the statue following Friday’s protest, was removed quickly, gone by the following day and not acknowledged on any formal level. The handling of student criticism against the statue indicates that Wash. U. has failed to fully acknowledge the implications of glorifying a figure who was involved in the construction of the many systems of colonization, racism and injustice that activists continue to fight against today. This bloody history can no longer be swept under the rug. 

It’s time we as a university come to terms with the full meaning of our name: Washington University in St. Louis. This means opening discussion on the statue’s significance to the Wash. U. community. It also means ruminating on what it means to be “in St. Louis.” The chancellor has stressed the phrase “in St. Louis, for St. Louis” as central to Washington University’s purpose and responsibility. But what does that actually mean? Brown School lecturers in particular have advocated for emphasizing that the University was built on stolen land, a point that Sayed also referenced in her op-ed. A statue of George Washington—who ordered the destruction of indigenous communities, advocated for genocide in the case of non-compliance with the colonization of indigenous land and was known as “Town Destroyer” by the Iroquois—cannot be separated from the legacy of the city and the land it stands on, and the people from whom it was taken. 

A common response to calls to remove problematic statues involves cautioning against possibly creating historical silence around the issues at play.  It’s a fair concern; should the statue be removed, future students may not even know it existed. That is antithetical to the goal of genuinely examining our history and responsibility as a university. However, to reduce the conversation to this point limits the broad spectrum of ideas that are available to us. 

For example, it has long been practice in Germany to replace Nazi monuments with memorial sites, musueums and smaller “stumbling stones,” plaques embedded in the ground dedicated to people or populations whose struggles might have otherwise been erased from history. Marking the history of a piece of land or a name thus creates an opportunity for education, reflection and a more honest view of the history of the spaces we occupy. The George Washington statue could even be moved into a museum or otherwise placed in a space where its implications could be examined in full, rather than standing publicly as a context-less vestige of the past. Naturally, the racial histories of Germany and the United States are distinct. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have something to learn from their handling of history.

This is only one idea out of many. Ultimately, the fate of the statue should be decided based on student and community input. At the very least, it is time for the University to allow students to air their grievances and share ideas on how the statue and general legacy of Washington have shaped—or hindered—their experiences as students. When these conversations are started, it’s imperative that the administration takes heed so that when more tangible steps are taken, they are informed, genuine and constructive. The University is beyond due for a reflection on why the statue continues to stand and who it stands for. It’s time to break the silence and fully consider the implications of every single word in our name: Washington University in St. Louis.

 

Our Voice: Editorial Board

This staff editorial represents the view of the Student Life editorial board following conversations at our weekly editorial board meeting. Student Life editors who report on similar topics were not a part of these discussions.

Managing Editors: Jayla Butler, Isabella Neubauer

Senior Forum Editors: Reilly Brady, Jamila Dawkins

Senior Scene Editor: Via Poolos

Senior Sports Editors: Grady Nance, Clara Richards

Senior Cadenza Editor: Gracie Hime

Multimedia Editor: HN Hoffman

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