Jackson County will put up signs at its statues of Andrew Jackson telling of the seventh president’s complicated and painful legacy. County legislators approved that step today after a good deal of back-and-forth discussion.

“It’s not to denigrate the man. It’s just an acknowledgement,” said County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who suggested the idea and developed the language to be used. She said she didn’t intend for the idea to be controversial.

County Executive Frank White Jr. said he supported the idea but was “shocked” at not being involved or getting a heads up.

“I don’t think anyone in his room should decide what goes on those plaques,” he said, adding African-Americans and Native Americans should be consulted.

Baker said she was open to further discussion, but legislators in their final meeting of 2019 went ahead and voted 6-2, with an abstention, for the signs. Those signs will note, among other things, that Jackson owned slaves and supported the Indian Removal Act, which “forced Native Americans from their home territories so that white settlers could live there and triggered the Trail of Tears, a 1,000-mile march resulting in the death of thousands, including an estimated one-quarter of the entire Cherokee nation.”

The county was named Jackson County 193 years this week in honor of Gen. Jackson. He was elected president two years later. He is astride a horse in statues at the Downtown Courthouse and the Truman Courthouse on the Independence Square.

Baker said it’s important for everyone coming to the courthouse – jurors, witnesses, victims of crime, others – see a fuller story of the county’s namesake when they encounter those two statues. She said she was offering specific language so legislators would have something to work with and officials could avoid what she called the county’s frequent pattern of study and discussion and then it’s “two years from now and nothing’s changed.”

White said he has a specific point of view on this, being the county’s first African-American county executive. White was born in Mississippi in 1950, and he spent summers there when he was growing up. Part of that experience was picking cotton, “which is the worst job anybody could ever have in their life,” he said – a reminder to this day for him of how rough things can be for people.

He’s dealt with places with white-only restrooms.

“You could buy your gas, but you couldn’t use the bathrooms,” he said. In some places, African-Americans could buy food at a business but not eat there – and he said that happened in Kansas City, too.

He said a plaque is fine, “but I am opposed to being left out of the conversation.”

“I just don’t think this is the way to do it,” he said.

Baker said she would welcome a wider conversation.

“And the county exec’s comments are well taken,” she said.

But the measure’s sponsor, Legislator Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, wanted to go ahead and vote. Borrowing Martin Luther King Jr.’s language that’s being used in the plaques, he said “... we are still bending toward justice and this discussion is still going on.”

Back and forth

Legislators discussed the proposal at length.

“Why do we have to talk about the Native Americans?” asked Legislator Ron Finley, D-Kansas City.

Anderson and others jumped into stress the devastation to Native Americans removed from the Southeast in the 1830s under the Indian Removal Act, signed by Jackson.

“It was the beginning of the Trail of Tears,” Baker said.

Finley said he thought the language offered by Baker and Anderson was fine, though in the end he voted no.

“If I was dealing with it, I’d just take the statue down,” Finley said.

Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, went a step further – but with a big caveat.

“I’d love to change to whole dang name (of the county), but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said.

Besides, she said, if there was a move to take the statues down, there would be “Nazis out on our front lawn.”

Baker stressed that even the removal of a statue does nothing to change history. Others agreed, Anderson said the inability to discuss the faults of the past “is a dangerous thing” but added that it’s important that the county not tell any resident that they are second rate.

Legislator Scott Burnett suggested waiting until Feb. 1 so White and others, such as the superintendent who oversees the courthouse, could give their ideas. But legislators went ahead and voted.

Those in favor were Anderson; Williams; Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs; Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City; Theresa Galvin, R-Lee’s Summit; and Tony Miller, D-Lee’s Summit. Opposed were Burnett and Finley; Burnett said he supported the idea but wanted others to be allowed to weigh in. Charlie Franklin, D-Independence, abstained.

New signs

The two statues currently have little written information. The downtown statue just says “Andrew Jackson,” and the Independence statue notes that it was presented to the county by President Truman in 1949.

This is language that is going up:

“In 1826, the Missouri State Legislature named this county after the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 – Andrew Jackson – nearly three years before he became the nation’s seventh President. Almost two centuries later, we hold a broader, more inclusive view of our nation. Jackson’s ownership of slaves and his support for the Indian Removal Act are part of his history. The act forced Native Americans from their home territories so that white settlers could live there and triggered the Trail of Tears, a 1,000-mile march resulting in the death of thousands, including an estimated one-quarter of the entire Cherokee nation.”

“This statue of Jackson reminds us we are on a path that in the immortal works of Martin Luther King, Jr., bends toward justice. In turn, we must acknowledge past injustices to help us create a greater nation built upon humane policies to light our way and the way of humanity everywhere.”

“You may be entering this revered building today in a pursuit of truth or justice. Welcome. Your own history if still being written.”