Jackson statues to get explanatory signs

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

After a majority of Jackson County voters said this week to keep the Andrew Jackson statues in front of two county courthouses, County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says she is moving forward with a previous plan for the statues.

Baker said her office will, as planned, pay for the explanatory signs for the statues that the Jackson County Legislature approved last year. 

“We’re going to go forward with the plaques,” said Baker, who won re-election herself Tuesday.

The signs with the statues in downtown Kansas City and on the Independence Square will note President Jackson’s complex and often troubling history. He enslaved people and in some instances was especially cruel toward slaves even by the standards of his day. As president, he carried out the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the Southeast. In what came to be known as the Trail of Tears, thousands died.

When the county was incorporated a couple years before Jackson’s presidency started, it was named for the man beloved as a hero in the War of 1812.

Baker said the two plaques will be made by Kansas City art foundry Eligius Bronze and will cost about $4,000. She hopes to have them in place “within a few weeks,” weather permitting.

“They’re slightly different sizes and shapes because of the layout of two statues,” she said.

The County Legislature’s approval of the signs last year came months before the nationwide social unrest spurred by George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn.

The Jackson statue in downtown Kansas City was vandalized in the summer, spurring County Executive Frank White Jr. and some legislators to come out in favor of simply removing the statues from such a public place of honor and putting them in a museum setting with a fuller historical context. A County Legislature majority decided instead to put the issue on the ballot.

Even more than that, Baker’s office didn’t have the signs in their budget until 2020, and the pandemic hit before Eligius Bronze started manufacturing them. By the time it restarted operations, the social unrest had flared up.

“We had waited for January for the new budget year; then it fell into those bureaucratic quagmires,” Baker said. “When we got back, the George Floyd thing hit, and we thought it was best to wait, to see what the voters wanted. We asked (Eligius) if they had started, and they had not yet, so we decided to hold up.”

Legislator Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, who had helped craft the language for the signs and then advocated for the statues’ removal, said last month that regardless of the vote he would like the statues to have signs with historic context. 

Such signs, he said then, would be “not only to teach about what President Jackson accomplished, but also the effects his legislation and his mindset had on the country. I’m against destroying the statues, but rather let’s use them for teaching.” 

“It’s not as if I have vendetta against the president, but society has changed greatly since his time,” said Anderson, one of two Black members of the County Legislature. “They’re not the knights in shining armor people thought they were then.”

After Tuesday’s vote, White’s office released a statement saying the statues “are not an appropriate representation of who we are and who we strive to be as a community – a community that is welcoming, diverse and open-minded.”

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for our democratic process, and while I may not always agree with the outcome, I believe there is something we can learn from every election,” White’s statement said. “I look forward to engaging in more opportunities to eliminate racism and discrimination in Jackson County as we continue the fight for equal rights and justice for those we serve.”

While Kansas City voters slightly favored removing the statues, Eastern Jackson County voters overwhelmingly said no. Baker said she hopes the signs can strike the right chord of balance.”

“My hope is that we were a little ahead of the curve on this issue, and people might find him in a proper historical context,” she said, “and maybe those who voted for its removal might be relieved to see some language there.”

What the signs will say

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.”

– Examiner editor Jeff Fox contributed to this report.