The statue of George Washington in New York City's Union Square commemorates him on a particular day—November 25th, 1783—the date when the defeated British Army left Manhattan after the American Revolutionary War. The statue celebrates the idea that Washington brought freedom to the country, but professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro researched how many people of African descent that Washington was enslaving on that same date: 271.
Representing these people formed the heart of Washington's Next!, a participatory commemorative experience focused around that statue. In this episode, Monteiro describes how a tweet from President Trump was the inspiration for the name, how passersby reacted to the project, and the subtle ways that public monuments have power.
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There’s a statue of George Washington in Union Square in Manhattan. It’s the oldest statue in New York City’s Park service; it was erected before the Civil War. it is cast to present Washington on one particular day -- November 25th, 1783 -- otherwise known as Evacuation Day. On that day, which was just after the end of the American Revolutionary War, the defeated British Army departed New York City.
Lyra Monteiro: Because Manhattan was their stronghold. And most of the black people who had joined the British side with the premise of freedom were evacuated from in defiance of George Washington's terms for this surrender, for the British surrender and all that. But this particular statue of George Washington is commemorating a hugely important date for this city. It's commemorating and marking and celebrating the idea of freedom being brought to the country, and hence as a moment to look at and draw attention to the hypocrisy of all of that. That at the same time that he's being celebrated for freeing the country, he's actively enslaving a number of other people, most of them in Virginia, some with him there, and actually a couple of them getting onto boats and going up to Nova Scotia with the British because they had escaped and joined and joined that immigration. So again, that's why the specificity of this statue mattered.
The number of Black people enslaved by Washington on the day commemorated by the statue is 271 -- and these people are at the heart of Dr. Lyra Monteiro’s project Washington’s Next!
Lyra Monteiro: The idea of how do we make visible, for instance, the enslaved people who are invisible at all of these sites of memory that were about white supremacy when they were created. And now they still are, but we don't talk about that. How do we make that visible? You know? That's something that I've been, I've been playing around with for a long time.
Lyra Monteiro: Hi, my name is Lyra Montero and I am an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University Newark, where I also teach in the graduate program in American studies and the African American and African studies department. Okay. And I also am the cofounder of the museum onsite and the creator of our most recent project, Washington's Next.
The name, Washington’s Next comes from one of President Trumpʼs tweets following the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017.
Trump took the opportunity to argue against movements to remove statues of Confederate generals like Robert. E. Lee, which live in prominent public places in U.S. cities.
One of these tweets read, You can’t change history, “Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson - whoʼs next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
I’m a little bit sorry to ask this, but could you lay out Trump’s argument, such as it is? What he is trying to say?
Lyra Monteiro: I can explain the argument that he is referencing. How about that? Whether or not he actually understands it, I don't know. But Donald Trump took an argument that has existed, you know, probably just about as long as we've had, you know, controversies over these statues honoring Confederate leaders. That is the slippery slope argument. And the people who make this argument tend not to be the ones who are like. Overtly gung ho and like, you know, it's our, it's our Southern heritage to honor Robert E. Lee. It's not those folks. It's more the people who are historians. Sometimes our historians, sometimes like museum folks. The argument that they make is that, well, yes, it's not good that there is a statue to Robert elite. But the thing is if we take him down and obviously using him to stand up for all the Confederate statues, if we take him down, well then where are we going to stop? Because the reason why he's not appropriate for us to honor and public spaces because of slavery.
Lyra Monteiro: Well, there are other slave owners that we honor in public space, and of course the biggest ones there are George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And of course, there's no way in hell we're going to get rid of those statues. Right? What we're going to take down the Washington monument, I don't think so. You know, so. The idea is it's a slippery slope that we're setting up. If we are starting to tumble down, the minute that we start taking down the statues of people who supported and promoted slavery.
So part of it, part of that slippery slope that you're describing is that, to the extent that someone like Washington encapsulates our founding myth, we can't let it touch that myth. It's too sacred and we're protecting them by protecting the statutes around them. But the things that Washington represents, the thing that, the things that I learned as a school child in the floor of the public schools about George Washington were things about his honor, and his honesty and how, thank goodness he wasn't a tyrant because America would look a lot different there as a result. And that is a very, very powerful thing.
Lyra Monteiro: And the implication there is also that America is a wonderful and beautiful place. I very much come from the perspective that enslaving other human beings is one of the most dehumanizing things imaginable for the person who's doing it, too. You summed that up really well in terms of, you know, the role that George Washington, much more so than Thomas Jefferson serves as being the father of the country. It's impossible to imagine questioning anything about him. Anything about his character, as you said, he's this honest person, all of these things, we should look up to him. And you know, a lot of that is just good old fashioned nationalism and the need for a coming-out-of-nowhere nation state like the United States to create these religious symbols and these religious narratives about where it comes from. And how important it is, and then how powerful it is. And yeah, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, they are just so central to that. And so I think that when people are saying that, honestly, like when the tone of voice in which I hear the slippery slope argument from scholars and from museum practitioners is, and from, you know, public parks officials, and also frankly from Donald Trump is less one of panic and concern about attacking that legacy and much more one of, “well, that's just silly! Obviously we wouldn't do that.” And the way that he phrased that tweet really kind of like set it up very nicely for us. You know, who's next? Washington's Next! We added the exclamation point under the title also because, because our fearless leader really loves exclamation points, so, we thought it would be an appropriate thing to add.
The centerpiece of Washingtonʼs Next! was a participatory commemorative experience, focused around that statue of George Washington in Union Square.
Monteiro and the Washingtonʼs Next! team placed 271 empty chalkboards on the ground in front of the statue, to represent each of the 271 people. The empty chalkboards invoked erasure -- how these people are forgotten in favor of the man we’re supposed to admire. For a few hours, these chalkboards stood empty, reflecting the absence of these people from public memory, in contrast to the man depicted in the statue. Then the Washingtonʼs Next! team invited passersbys to honor individuals Washington enslaved by reading their biography and writing their name on one of the chalkboards.
Lyra Monteiro: So the project actually went through several iterations. You know, the, the core of it, focusing on that statue, on the date, and on the people who were enslaved by him at that date. That quarter of the project was there for many, many months. But the, how it manifested in physical space was something that went through a number of changes. And one of the reasons was making sure that we were presenting something that would draw people in. And it turns out, yeah, I mean, those, I remember the first time that we did a test with the actual chalkboards we ended up using on the easels. It was crazy. I mean, cause you know, New York is New York has seen everything. But you would be surprised, like all kinds of other things that we'd put on the ground or other things that we'd done, you know, with different kinds of like, you know, you know, formations and costumey things that we were playing with, you know, nobody cares. But the minute they saw these like easels on the ground that were blank at that stage, everyone was like, “what's that>” And so that was when we knew. That is the thing we need because of it. You know, it doesn't make sense. I don't know what that is. You know, it's not a protest sign. It's not just some random shit on the ground.
Monteiro’s philosophy is that it is important to create something that members of the public would want to engage with -- and then stick with them as they go about their lives.
Lyra Monteiro: Everyone who was working the event in Union Square on that day was wearing a black t-shirt that had Washington's Next! on it. So you'd be pretty identifiable. And also holding onto these little handouts that we had. So then if people came up to us and were like, “Hey, what's going on?, we'd give them a handout. Usually the questions were much more specific. Like, “Oh, I don't get it. What's the statute?” Okay. Well, and then the thing about the handout was that it was designed very carefully to answer all of those questions live and in front of that statue. You know, here's the picture of the statue from another angle. So you can see more clearly. So this is statute George Washington. It was built in, right? You know, “George Washington had slaves?” Yeah. So here's a description of his slave ownership and blah, blah, blah. And you know, in general, and here's Mount Vernon and a map of the different plantations that he had around Mount Vernon that are not part of the tour anymore, of course, you know, and things like that. So like basically, and even though we had, we had the image of that particular tweet as well, it was part of that pamphlet. But again, you know, we weren't, we were never asking people to take it.
Lyra Monteiro: They were asking us for it. And then on top of that, then we rely on word of mouth, right? So somebody does come up to us, gets a pamphlet, talks to us about the things they have questions about. They're still looking at it. Another person comes up and sees, they have a pamphlet and goes, what's this about?
Lyra Monteiro: Um, because. You know, that I think has a lot more power than us being like, hey, “we're smarter than you and we know a lot of stuff. Pay attention to us!”
Washinton’s Next! Ties into Monteiro’s academic work about public memory and stories around how we commemorate people in public space.
Washington’s Next! is a project of Museums on Site, which is dedicated to helping people understand their worlds through free, site- and community-specific experiences. You can find more information about Washington’s Next!, see a panel discussion about the project called Monumental Racists, or get involved in other ways, by visiting washintonsnext.com.
Lyra Monteiro: When I teach a public introduction to public history class to undergraduates, one of our, one of the main projects they do involves studying a monument or ,emorial in Newark, so near our campus, and you know, finding out who made it, spending time by it and watching how people interact with it or don't. Inevitably, of course, usually nobody interacts with it. And if they look over it all, it's because they're like, why is the student hanging out there in this like, kind of dreary weather, you know? And the number of times that they themselves are like, yeah, I used to walk by it all the time. I never even looked. Right? And then that weird thing about monuments and what I think makes them so powerful, and any statues in of people in public space is that we don't think about them having power or mattering. And yet they do, in some ways because we don't think about them, you know, until there's a threat to them until somebody says, “Oh, yeah, no, I think I'm going to take that down.” You know, like my. Seriously, like all of my students and, and, and Rutgers-Newark is the most diverse university in the country and has been since these things have been measured. You can probably imagine that most of the statues in Newark are not to People of Color to put it mildly. And it's amazing how over the course of that project, how many of them just develop this like ferocious, cause I'd taken that project in different ways. And one of them at one point had to do with like, do you think your statute should go, especially after Charlottesville? Do you think the statute should be torn down, or should we, you know, keep it, and if we want to keep it, how would we enhance it to make it more relevant? And I was, it's always interesting to see how many of them just get so devoted to the idea of keeping the statute to the person that's already there. Even if they've never heard of that person. There's something that there's just so much power in having something set in stone, you know?
Lyra Monteiro: My favorite joke around that to this day remains, you know, Washington and Lee university in Virginia.
Yeah. So there's Washington and Lee University. I need to check up on the latest status of this cause this was like a decade ago that I originally heard about this, they were talking about, you know, getting rid of the Lee part because. Obvious reasons, but then it gets pointed out, well, what about the Washington part? Why on earth are you make a huge deal to change and rebrand your whole university? Just to eat wise, you're going to get rid of Lee. Really? And this was from people who actually got it, I think, you know, as opposed to the ones who are like that stupid. They're like, ha, ha, that's awesome. And they, and so their proposal was that they should change the name of the university to Ampersand University!
Which I just adore.