The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s 50,000 monuments: More mermaids than congresswomen, more Confederates than abolitionists

The Mount Rushmore monument in Keystone, S.D. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Hundreds of public monuments have come down amid the racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd last year. Some were toppled by protesters armed with rope; others have been disassembled and carted away by professionals hired by local governments.

These removals may seem, well, monumental. But according to a study of U.S. public monuments, they’re a drop in the bucket, representing a mere 0.6 percent of the country’s nearly 50,000 monuments — monuments to historical figures who skew overwhelmingly White and male, including people who enslaved others, fought for the Confederacy, or never even set foot on American soil.

So who has been commemorated most often in stone, metal or wood? Unsurprisingly, Abraham Lincoln tops the list of historical figures most frequently honored with a public monument (193), edging out George Washington (171), according to the “National Monument Audit” by the nonprofit Monument Lab.

Controversial Lincoln statue is removed in Boston, but remains in D.C.

Christopher Columbus — who never visited mainland North America — comes in third, followed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. At No. 5 is Saint Francis of Assisi, who also never contributed directly to American history, given that he died in Italy in 1226.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee comes in at No. 6.

Of the 50 historical figures most frequently honored with a monument, only three were women: Joan of Arc, Sacagawea and Harriet Tubman. Tubman, the only one of the three who would have called herself American, was born enslaved and was not considered a citizen until she was in her 40s.

Of the men on the top 50 list, more than half were enslavers. Twelve were generals, 11 presidents and four Catholic saints or missionaries. Four were leaders of the Confederacy. Three men in the top 50 are men of color: King, Tecumseh and Frederick Douglass.

None of the top 50 were openly gay or transgender.

In public monuments, women are more often depicted as mythological and fictional figures than as historical ones. There are 22 public monuments that include mermaids but only two of congresswomen: one each for Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) and Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.).

To compile the audit, researchers at the Philadelphia-based “lab,” which seeks to “engage with” and “disrupt” public art and memory, scoured records of nearly 50,000 public monuments from federal, state, local, tribal and other public sources.

The audit includes some records of monuments that have been removed, from a statue of King George III in New York taken down in 1776 to the statue of Lee in Richmond taken down last month.

Analysis: Let’s get real about Robert E. Lee and slavery

Of 5,917 recorded monuments that mention the Civil War, only 1 percent also mention slavery. Of 916 monuments mentioning pioneers and westward expansion, only 15 percent also mention Native Americans, Indians or Indigenous people.

While many who oppose the removal of Confederate monuments have argued that it is tantamount to forgetting history, the authors of the report say the data shows something like the opposite has been happening for hundreds of years — that in fact, our monument landscape has given us the mistaken impression that White men, and particularly White military men, are most worthy of honor and remembrance. It minimizes the contributions of others to these men’s achievements and ignores historical figures who made achievements in, say, civil rights, peace or public health.

“Where inequalities and injustices exist, monuments often perpetuate them,” the report said. “Monuments suppress far more than they summon us to remember; they are not mere facts on a pedestal.”

It isn’t just that White men have been permitted to do more throughout American history, but also that what others have done has not been recognized as historically significant until recently.

The Statuary Hall collection at the U.S. Capitol is instructive here. The collection comprises 100 statues, two sent by each of the 50 states to represent figures important to their history, which the states can replace any time they choose. For example, in 2009, California replaced a statue of minister Thomas Starr King with one of Ronald Reagan.

In 2017, the collection included statues of at least eight Confederates, plus a handful of avowed white supremacists. Only eight were of women and none were of African Americans.

Since then, seven states have moved to replace statues in the Capitol.

Arkansas will soon replace both its statues with ones of music artist Johnny Cash and civil rights leader Daisy Bates. Florida will replace its Confederate statue with one of activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. North Carolina will replace its statue of a white supremacist governor with one of the Rev. Billy Graham. And Virginia will replace yet another statue of Lee with one of civil rights leader Barbara Johns.

Other recent and forthcoming changes should make the collection more representative of the country. In 2019, Nebraska replaced a statue of politician William Jennings Bryan with one of civil rights hero Chief Standing Bear. The state also has a statue of Willa Cather on the way. Washington state just approved one of Nisqually leader Billy Frank Jr., and Utah is working on a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon, the first woman in U.S. history to be elected as a state senator.

Read more Retropolis:

The creator of Mount Rushmore’s forgotten ties to white supremacy

The civil rights leader ‘almost nobody knows about’ gets a statue in the U.S. Capitol

The first woman to start a bank — a Black woman — finally gets her due in the Confederacy’s capital