How do Madison monuments represent our community?
We turned to experts and community leaders to explore questions about our monuments, sculptures and building names, the conversations they spark, and what it all says about us.
Faisal Abdu’Allah handed his printmaking students a worksheet with an empty monument plinth on it.
“I’m giving you $750,000,” he prompted. “You have an opportunity to make a monument. Make a drawing of what you think that monument should be. Where would it be, what would it represent, what’s it made out of?”
Abdu’Allah — a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor, the associate dean for the arts in the School of Education and the Chazen Family Distinguished Chair of Art — started doing this exercise in 2020, when conversations and questions about monuments were coming up in the U.S. and cities worldwide.
He also wanted to make sure he was teaching his students how to be functional artists — he asked how exactly they’d distribute the funds for this hypothetical commission. Was the artist fee $100,000, or $200,000? Was it $500,000? And what would they put atop that plinth?
“They came up with wonderful ideas,” Abdu’Allah says. “Some of them were going to stand on it and perform spoken word over six months. Some were going to make it out of ice. Some would make it organic, so they’d mound soil and plant seeds on it. Some would make it through the lens of their own history, being Native American or Latinx. So there were all these different ideas on how to make these monuments.”
Meanwhile, Abdu’Allah, an internationally acclaimed artist, was pursuing the creation of his own monument. He was working out the idea with Leah Kolb, then-curator at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The idea made its way to Quarra Stone Co., which is a Madison-based stone supplier for artists and architects worldwide, and one of the companies that was part of the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Virginia.
Abdu’Allah, who is also a trained barber, wanted to incorporate a barber chair in the piece. He thought maybe it would be carved out of Styrofoam as a temporary installation, but those close to the project were seeing the big potential of Abdu’Allah’s initial idea.
“Before I knew it, I got an invitation to come to Quarra and look at the potentially selected piece of stone,” he says. “They wanted to fully realize it.”
Abdu’Allah’s Blu³eprint — a MMoCA-commissioned 7-foot limestone statue depicting a 3D-scanned image of Abdu’Allah sitting in a Belmont barber chair — was unveiled on State Street in February 2022.
The lines and marks within the stone — reminiscent of the fades and cuts a barber would make — are evidence of the 80 hours of robotic cutting that occurred before an Italian master carver, Martin Foot, smoothed out fine details in the hands and head.
The statue’s physical appearance is as multi-dimensional as its meaning. While it’s a contemporary rendition of statues that have stood in our cities, capital seats and other public spaces for years — some of which have been removed or torn down in protest — Blu³eprint represents something new entirely. It poses more questions about our shared humanity.
What significance should a statue have? Who decides what or who is honored? And what does it say about us? It took many conversations with several community leaders and experts to find answers.
Why do humans even care about statues? The earliest known human-shaped, life-size statue dates back to 9000 B.C., and humans have been memorializing people and events in permanent and public ways since then.
“Monuments are part of constructing the ideological support for a society or nation,” says Pamela Oliver, a UW–Madison professor emerita of sociology. “They say who or what [is] important, at least at the time they went up.”
But the monuments themselves don’t do a lot, she says. It’s the social discussions and politics that surround the monument that are important. “If you keep history classes all-white and ignore the realities of U.S. history in how things are taught, making monuments ‘diverse’ probably won’t do much,” Oliver says. “It isn’t just a matter of diversity, it is a matter of what ‘story’ the monuments tell. Are they just statues of people who have features that appear non-European? Or do they represent moments in history? Which moments? Do you celebrate slave rebellions? Do you memorialize the torture of slavery? Black inventors? Indigenous leaders? Indigenous wars of resistance against white invaders? How do you tell the story of Custer’s Last Stand?”
Kathy Cramer — a UW–Madison professor and Natalie C. Holton Chair of Letters & Science, whose research interests include civic engagement, political participation and public opinion — believes the U.S., especially since the 2016 presidential election, is experiencing an identity crisis. “There’s notions of what America is that have been prominent for centuries that we now are reconsidering,” Cramer says. “So there’s this turmoil over what symbols do we use to signify who we are.”
Tangible elements are important for place-making and creating a sense of home, says Heather Bailey, who is the city’s preservation planner and staffs the Landmarks Commission. “If you want people to feel welcome, they need something physically there that makes them feel welcome.”
There’s incredible power in doing something commemorative, Bailey says, but it also signals a clear message when you preserve a piece of history. “[That says], ‘This is a story that is worth saving. These people are worth celebrating,’ ” Bailey says. “And if your people are never a part of that group that the official government entity says is worth preserving and has a worthwhile story, people notice.”
Have people noticed in Madison? The answer is yes. Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, was downtown on Aug. 25, 2020, along with several other prominent community leaders during one of the nights of civil unrest. He ran into a group of young people around 4:30 a.m. in front of the Capitol. They told him they didn’t feel like there was Black representation at the state Capitol. “So I wrote a letter to the chairman of the state Capitol and Executive Residence Board,” Johnson says. He launched an effort that ultimately resulted in the green-lighting of plans for a Capitol statue to be erected in honor of the late Vel Phillips.
Phillips was the first of many things, including the first African American and female secretary of state in Wisconsin and the first African American woman to graduate from the UW–Madison law school. Now, when her statue is installed in 2024, she will be the first African American woman to be so memorialized at a state Capitol in the U.S. Johnson reached out to Vel Phillips’ son, Michael D. Phillips, who has joined the task force to see the project through.
Johnson has spearheaded several such initiatives, including the successful effort to rename Fitchburg City Hall’s chambers after Frances Huntley-Cooper, a former Fitchburg mayor and a community leader. “I just think it’s important that Black kids, white kids, Hmong kids, LGBTQ kids see people who are reflective of them in some of these public spaces,” Johnson says.
Statues are physical representations of our culture, and they’re daily reminders of someone’s conception of who we are, says Cramer.
“How do you describe the culture of the city of Madison — it exists partly in the words we say to one another and the words that our journalists use to describe who we are, but then we also have all these physical representations we put out there,” Cramer says.
What does it mean when a statue comes down? Sometimes statues depict controversial conflicts, as with the plethora of Confederate monuments that were installed after the 1890s, Oliver says. They were also often weapons in a battle between people trying to control the narrative. “They were part of a white Southern movement to redefine the meaning of the Civil War and were tied to pushing back against racial equality,” she says.
The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 as incidents of violence against Black people persisted. It picked up momentum after the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016 and a 2017 Unite the Right rally that sent shockwaves through the U.S. when torch-carrying, Confederate flag- and Nazi flag-toting white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. These events undoubtedly contributed to support for the removal of Confederate monuments in cities including Baltimore, New Orleans and Virginia in those years. Madison’s then-mayor Paul Soglin successfully called for the removal of Confederate monuments at Forest Hill Cemetery in 2017. Confederate monuments continue to come down today, particularly after the murder of George Floyd — at least 100 confederate monuments were removed across the country in 2020.
Most of these efforts were official, but statues have also come down at the hands of citizens in acts of protest. Sometimes it’s about the monument itself not being a good representation of the community in the eyes of the protestors, but in other cases it’s symbolic. “The toppling of a monument almost always represents something somewhat different from the simple negation of whatever meaning was attached to putting the monument up,” says Oliver.
The Hans Christian Heg and Forward statues were torn down and defaced during June 2020 protests at the state Capitol. (Both were reinstalled in 2021.) Neither statue was representative of Confederate figures, but that didn’t necessarily matter. Heg was a Norwegian abolitionist who’s remembered as an anti-slavery activist, and the Forward statue — commissioned and championed by women and sculpted by a woman — is considered an embodiment of the state’s progressive “Forward” motto.
“In the heat of the moment during the George Floyd protest,” Cramer says, “there was an assumption that the monuments were not representing people whose voices have not been heard for so long.”
Bianca Gomez — co-executive director of Freedom Inc., a social justice nonprofit — hopes the act of tearing down monuments in protest doesn’t end in a conversation about why they should or shouldn’t have been taken down, but instead inspires people to focus on what it means. “People are angry in this moment because Black people are continuing to be murdered by the police,” Gomez says. “So why are we focused on a material object that can be rebuilt and replaced?”
It’s clear many communities, Madison included, have decided that monument removal can be a meaningful act. But there’s a cost associated with that. UW–Madison decided to remove the 42-ton boulder called Chamberlin Rock — which was named in honor of geologist and former university president Thomas Chamberlin — because it reportedly became a symbol of racism after being given a Ku Klux Klan-era nickname that referenced the N-word. The removal effort is reported to have cost $50,000, which came from private donations. Reinstalling the Heg and Forward statues cost $82,280, which came from two federal grants, fundraised dollars coordinated by the Wisconsin Historical Society, restitution funds and insurance.
There also may be a different sort of cost — one less easy to quantify. Abdu’Allah says when it comes to removing monuments, he understands why some statues can be seen as traumatic for some people. But, he says, “Wouldn’t it be better to leave the thing where it is and bring in an artist to make a response to it? So therefore, when a young person sees these two things in proximity, they think, ‘Why is this thing with this thing?’ ” That will start a conversation about our shared history, Abdu’Allah says, and it puts money in artists’ pockets instead of enriching construction companies.
Abdu’Allah wonders what the conversation would look like if his State Street piece, Blu³eprint, sat across from the Abe Lincoln statue. He sees that conversation being much more interesting than if one of the statues were to be taken out of the public sphere.
“Whatever monument you put up, it’s always going to be subject to critique,” Abdu’Allah says. An artistic piece should open itself up for questions, for joy, for love and for tears, he says, which was his intention with Blu³eprint. “What I’m doing is creating a question and using my ideas, my body, the material as a doorway.”
What’s changed? First of all, we’re more aware of the monuments, statues and building names around us, Abdu’Allah argues. Many people used to walk past them without a second thought, but all of a sudden now, people see them,” he says.
And they’ve started conversations. Madison historian Stu Levitan says it’s reaffirming to see how close people feel to their history. “To see a debate over, ‘Is this person appropriate to honor with a statue?’ — that’s a good exercise for the community to go through, certainly,” he says.
The community has participated in many of those exercises recently. Many Madison schools are named after people, and since 2020, three public schools have been renamed — all in honor of Black women: Virginia Henderson, Milele Chikasa Anana and Vel Phillips — and another school renaming is under consideration. (See timeline for more details.) “Having schools named after appropriate people can really be a unifying and inspiring force for generations of school children,” says Levitan.
But there needs to be a careful process when it comes to naming public entities after people, Fitchburg District Alder 4 Jim Wheeler argues. When the idea came about to rename the Fitchburg City Hall building after Frances Huntley-Cooper, he disagreed with the proposal, although he did agree the Fitchburg City Hall chamber should bear her name. “As far as city hall, fire stations and police stations are concerned, these buildings should be neutral places for the community and therefore reflect the name of the community,” Wheeler says. “They should represent ‘We the People,’ because that is what makes the community what it is. Not any one individual. I believe these buildings also represent our democratic processes.” If the community does want to rename a building or public facility after a person, there should be a specific set of criteria, because it can be very divisive, Wheeler says.
The city of Madison has also added to the conversation and responded to the moment. The Phillips statue planned for the Capitol successfully circumvented a 1995 city policy that said no new monuments would be considered on the Capitol grounds unless an existing memorial was removed.
“There was tremendous support for the Vel Phillips statue as well as support to not remove any of the existing monuments/memorials,” says Paula Veltum, a capital projects specialist advanced limited-term employee.
The city also did something it’s never done before. In 2020 it launched a comprehensive, citywide preservation plan as well as an Underrepresented Communities Historic Resources Survey to analyze its preservation process.
“One of the things we did was slow down and think about, what are we choosing to preserve?” says Heather Bailey, the city’s preservation planner. “And what stories are we telling? Is that telling the full story of the city of Madison and its residents? And the answer was no.”
Within the city’s five local historic districts, Madison has 182 total designated landmarks. This primarily includes properties with some type of local or historic designation. Bailey says the majority of those properties, apart from a few Native American sites, mostly commemorate very white, very wealthy and very male people.
“These are properties that tell stories about the big movers and shakers, and that is certainly a significant part of our history, but it’s not telling the whole story,” Bailey says.
She says the city needs to tell a more complete story about the people of Madison. “We haven’t always done that. We can and will do better,” she says.
While monuments and statues don’t fall under Bailey’s purview, she sees parallels with what stories have been chosen to commemorate with a monument.
“One of the longstanding cultural traditions related to monument-making is, yes, about celebrating, but it’s also about power a lot of the time, and claiming space and claiming the story, saying, ‘This is the story we’re going to tell here,’ ” Bailey says. “But then that tends to exclude some other stories.”
Freedom Inc.’s Gomez says physical representation is meaningful, but it also should be coupled with real justice. “We deserve a statue, and Vel Phillips deserves a school named after her and we deserve to stop being harmed by the police,” she says. “We deserve housing, we deserve investment, we deserve transportation — all the things that we need to survive. We need and deserve both, and we should never have to choose one or the other.”
The Vel Phillips statue is a good example of how both can happen at once. Fundraising for the statue also includes plans for the Vel R. Phillips Legacy Fund, which will subsidize the design, fabrication and placement of the statue, and it will also establish a legacy endowment, which will deliver multiple education scholarships throughout the state, and underwrite housing and community engagement invitations in Milwaukee County. Michael D. Phillips says there has been tremendous support for the statue every step of the way.
UW–Madison’s Cramer appreciates the dialogue that’s taken place surrounding the many recent decisions about monuments, old and new. “All of these monuments, these names, they all matter because they’re a constant presence in our community telling people about what to think about and what to value,” she says.
“It sure has made us have a discussion about it,” she continues. “It sure has made us sit up and notice, ‘Wow, we need to talk with one another about who we are.’”
RENAMING, REMOVING AND RECKONING
AUGUST 2017: CONFEDERATE PLAQUE REMOVED FROM CEMETERY
Then-mayor Paul Soglin orders the removal of a plaque that was installed in 1981 at Forest Hill Cemetery. Soglin tells Isthmus that it was a “‘slab of propaganda’ paid for by a racist organization,” referring to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which Soglin called a white supremacy group.
OCTOBER 2017: FIRST NATIONS CULTURAL LANDSCAPE TOUR FOUNDED
Aaron Bird Bear, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, develops a place-based tour that takes participants to archaeological sites and campus landmarks around Teejop (the original Ho-Chunk name for Madison) to highlight history, culture and tribal sovereignty.
2018: THEATER AND GALLERY DROP NAMES
Two names are dropped from Wisconsin Union Theater spaces: “Fredric March” from Play Circle Theater and “Porter Butts” from a nearby art gallery. The changes come after research appears to connect March and Butts to a Ku Klux Klan-affiliated campus group. (Three years later, in 2021, the NAACP and others call for the return of March’s name, and a former Wisconsin Union director and the Butts family call for Butts’ name and legacy to be restored as well.)
JANUARY 2019: CONFEDERATE CENOTAPH REMOVED FROM CEMETERY
In 2018, the City Council overturns the city Landmark Commission’s decision to keep a Confederate monument in the cemetery. It is relocated in 2019 to the State Archive Preservation Facility. The monument, installed at the cemetery more than 60 years after the end of the Civil War, lists names of Confederate soldiers buried at the site.
JUNE 2019: HERITAGE MARKER ADDED TO BASCOM HILL
An “Our Shared Future” plaque is placed on the top of Bascom Hill to recognize the land as the Ho-Chunk Nation’s ancestral home. Leaders from the university, the state and the Ho-Chunk Nation attend the June 18 dedication ceremony.
AUGUST 2019: THE BADGER GOES UP, NAILS’ TALES COMES DOWN
The area around Camp Randall Stadium sees change in the summer of 2019, when a bronze, 10-foot-long statue of a badger by the late Harry Whitehorse — a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, an artist and a veteran — goes up. Across the street, artist Donald Lipski’s 50-foot-tall Nails’ Tales sculpture depicting a pile of footballs is taken down.
JANUARY 2020: ELEMENTARY SCHOOL RENAMED FOR VIRGINIA HENDERSON
Glendale Elementary School is renamed in honor of the late Virginia Henderson, a Glendale school psychologist from 1976 to 1991.
JUNE 2020: FORWARD AND HEG STATUES TORN DOWN DURING PROTESTS
Two statues outside the state Capitol — “Forward” and Col. Hans Christian Heg — are torn down and defaced during a protest. Both are reinstalled in September 2021.
JUNE 2020: STUDENTS CREATE ABE PETITION
UW–Madison students petition to remove Bascom Hill’s Abraham Lincoln statue, referencing the racist history of the former president and also the statue’s primary donor. Then-chancellor Rebecca Blank releases a statement that the university will continue to support the campus statue.
JANUARY 2021: ELEMENTARY SCHOOL RENAMED FOR MS. MILELE
Following the death of Milele Chikasa Anana, an icon in the community who marked several firsts for Black women in leadership positions, the Madison School Board decides to rename Falk Elementary School in her honor. What is now Milele Chikasa Anana Elementary School was originally named for the 1939-63 Madison School District superintendent Philip Falk, who was allegedly part of a Ku Klux Klan-affiliated student group at UW–Madison.
AUGUST 2021: CHAMBERLIN ROCK REMOVED FROM CAMPUS
UW–Madison removes the former Chamberlin Rock, an object said to have made Black students uncomfortable because it was described with a racial slur. The more-than-2-billion-year-old rock is a pre-Cambrian-era glacial erratic that honored geologist and former UW president Thomas Chamberlin. It’s now on land owned by the university near Lake Kegonsa.
NOVEMBER 2021: VEL PHILLIPS STATUE GETS GREEN LIGHT
The city approves plans for a Capitol statue honoring the late Vel Phillips, who was the first Black woman elected to state office and served as secretary of state from 1979 to 1983. Planned to be finished in early 2024, the statue will be the first Capitol monument honoring a Black woman in the U.S.
NOVEMBER 2021: HIGH SCHOOL RENAMED VEL PHILLIPS MEMORIAL HIGH SCHOOL
James Madison Memorial High School is renamed in the 2022-23 school year to honor the late Vel Phillips. The renaming sparks much public debate, particularly around James Madison’s history as a slave owner.
APRIL 2021: DIVINE NINE GARDEN PLAZA DEDICATED
A garden and markers between Vilas Hall and East Campus Mall are dedicated to acknowledge the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which includes nine historically Black sororities and fraternities.
FEBRUARY 2022: BLU³EPRINT UNVEILED ON STATE STREET
A limestone sculpture called Blu³eprint, which stemmed from an idea to create a contemporary monument, is unveiled on State Street. In 2020, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned acclaimed artist and UW–Madison printmaking professor Faisal Abdu’Allah to create the piece.
FEBRUARY 2022: COMMUNITY REQUESTS TO RENAME MIDDLE SCHOOL
A formal request is made by the community on Feb. 28, 2022, to rename Thomas Jefferson Middle School. The renaming process is ongoing.
MARCH 2022: FITCHBURG RENAMES COUNCIL CHAMBERS
Frances Huntley-Cooper, a former mayor and District 1 alder, is now the namesake for the Fitchburg Common Council chambers.
SEPTEMBER 2022: “SIFTING & RECKONING” EXHIBIT OPENS
UW–Madison’s multiyear Public History Project meant to “uncover and give voice to those who experienced, challenged and overcame prejudice on campus” presents an exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art that opens Sept. 12. Read more about the exhibit on page 20.
Editor’s note: This is not a comprehensive timeline. It is meant to highlight a few examples of the conversations and decisions that have taken place in the Madison area over the past few years regarding statues, dedications and initiatives.
Andrea Behling is the editor of Madison Magazine. This article appeared in the October 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.
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