County puts statues decision on ballot

Mike Genet
The Examiner

On the same Nov. 3 ballot to elect the president and Missouri governor, Jackson County voters will also get to decide whether or not to keep the Andrew Jackson statues outside the Historic Truman Courthouse on the Independence Square and the county courthouse in downtown Kansas City.

The County Legislature voted 7-2 Monday to put the Jackson statues’ fate on the ballot for November. The Legislature then voted 6-3 against simply removing and storing the statues, one of which was damaged by vandals June 25. A subsequent vote to form a committee to examine the issue also failed.

Legislature Chair Theresa Cass Galvin, R-Lee’s Summit, said that if voters decided to remove the statues of the county’s namesake, the nation’s seventh president, the Legislature will assign a committee to explore what to do with the statues after removing them.

Jackson County Executive Frank White, who had called for the Legislature to take action toward removing the statues, had a brief but contentious back-and-forth with Galvin after saying the governing body was ducking criticism from the public by simply asking the public to decide.

“I truly believe this is a body that doesn’t want to do what it has been elected to do,” White said after Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, called on legislators to decide on removal.

Galvin tried to stop White and said he was being “insulting” and “rude,” which White denied.

“I have a right to participate in these discussions, and you can’t shut me down like this,” White said. “I’m not being rude; you just don’t want to hear the truth.”

White, the county’s first African-American executive, said if lawmakers in Jackson, Mississippi could decide to remove a Jackson statue without a public vote, then the County Legislature should be able to do the same. If they’re going to send every tough decision to the voters, he said, “Let’s make every decision go to the voters.”

Galvin and fellow legislators Dan Tarwater, Scott Burnett, Tony Miller, Charlie Franklin and Jeanie Lauer voted to put the statues’ fate on the ballot. Anderson, who requested for the ordinance to remove the statues, and Ronald Finley voted against the ballot measure. Williams joined them in voting for removal.

The vote to form a committee failed 5-4. Anderson, Finley, Williams and Miller voted for the committee.

After the statue in downtown Kansas City was vandalized by protesters last month, White asked the Legislature to form a committee that would hold public hearings and ultimately recommend “a better home for these statues where their history can be put into the appropriate context for us to learn from.”

At the June 29 Legislature meeting, Galvin said she favored a ballot measure.

“That’s their property. That should be their decision, not ours,” she said then.

Anderson said Monday he understood the desire to ask the voters but added that “the people did not have the chance to vote to even put those there.”

“The people put us here to make these difficult decisions,” he said.

In the midst of a lengthy address detailing Jackson’s history of owning slaves, heading off abolitionists, and signing the Indian Removal Act that led to the deadly 1,000-mile Trail of Tears, Anderson said everyone in the room believes Jackson doesn’t represent who they are today.

“What is the cause that we keep these statues up?” he asked rhetorically. “I believe that we can rise to the occasion and just take them down. Put them in museums and places of art and let the story be known of what this man did.”

Anderson, who like Finley is Black, said that he’s received messages that used racial slurs and said only a Black man would vote to remove the statues.

In December 2019, months before the civil unrest that spurred the current statute discussion, the County Legislature voted to place plaques at both statues that described Jackson’s complicated and painful legacy, including his owning slaves and as president signing Indian Removal Act that forced thousands of Native Americans out of the southeast United States in the 1830s. County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker had said her office would pay for the plaques.

The county was named Jackson County in 1826 in honor of Gen. Jackson, two years before he was elected the country’s seventh president. He is riding a horse in both statues.

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 not about erasing history. We can never do that,” White told legislators June 29, saying the Jackson statues are symbols of slavery, oppression and death. “This is about standing on the right side of history.”