After an executive order, the NEH is rebuilding toppled monuments

Here We Go Again

After an executive order, the NEH is rebuilding toppled monuments

The Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx. (Jim.henderson/Wikimedia Commons/Accessed under the CC0 1.0 Universal license)

After a summer of protests against racially motivated police brutality that saw demonstrators topple monuments to slavers, Confederate generals, Columbus, and other historical figures with problematic legacies across the country, the Trump Administration is putting (some of them) back up again.

Following on the heels of an executive order signed in July to found a “National Garden of American Heroes” by 2026 for the nation’s 250th birthday, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced that it would spend $120,000 to fix or replace a number of felled statues to drum up support for the National Garden.

The money is coming in the form of Chairman’s Grants, the NEH’s method of providing emergency funding to safeguard cultural heritage in the face of (what are typically natural) disasters. Instead of courting controversy by re-erecting downed Confederate leaders, however, the NEH will use the money to restore a selection of mostly neutral choices.

That includes allocating $30,000 for the repair of a statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg, a Union abolitionist, that has stood in front of the Wisconsin Capitol building since 1925 and was torn down by protestors in June, and “allegory of devotion and progress,” Forward. While both might seem like recognitions of honorable ideals, the two were toppled because, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the statues both promoted a “false sense of equality” in a state still divided along deep racial and economic lines.

In Rochester, New York, $30,000 will go towards nonprofit group Rochester Community TV for the creation of a bronze monument to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who lived in the city for 25 years. No location for the piece has been finalized yet. This comes after a statue of Douglass was stolen from the city’s Maplewood Park and thrown in a nearby river in July although no culprits were ever caught, or motives discerned.

Another $30,000 will go towards Bronx Community College (BCC), for an initiative to photograph and digitize “archival photographs and materials documenting the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, featuring 98 busts of notable Americans in a Stanford White-designed colonnade on the BCC campus, for use as teaching materials while the hall remains closed during the pandemic.” While not damaged, the 120-year-old Bronx hall is currently inaccessible due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and digitizing the collection would broaden its use. Thematically, the effort makes sense, as the Hall of Fame could be seen as a miniature prototype for what the administration is going for with the National Garden of American Heroes, on a much less grandiose scale.

The most controversial grant is likely to be the $30,000 allocated for the restoration of a Christopher Columbus statue torn down on July 4th in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood and subsequently tossed in the Inner Harbor. Throughout the summer, protestors around the country successfully lobbied to remove Columbus statues due to his enslavement and intentional extermination of Native Americans (something he was later arrested and stripped of his titles for), so it’s unclear how Baltimore residents will react. Baltimore Mayor Bernard Young, for his part, had pledged to punish the perpetrators and the statue was eventually dredged back out of the harbor.

At the time of writing, the Trump Administration is still taking suggestions for iconic Americans to populate the future hero garden.