Another one bites the dust

The monument to Harvey Whitefield Scott is the latest statue to fall in Portland. How did we end up with it in the first place and should we keep it?

When I heard that the sculpture of Harvey Whitefield Scott was pulled down from its pedestal sometime on the morning of October 20th, I couldn’t help but give a small cheer. Unlike with the topplings of Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt a few weeks ago, no one has taken credit for taking Scott down. Whoever it was gets some extra flair points for not only pulling the sculpture down from its pedestal but also removing an arm. The photo from The Oregonian of the dismembered arm discarded against the fence is a nice touch.

Dismembered arm from Harvey Whitefield Scott sculpture on Mt. Tabor on October 20. Image from the Oregonian.

A few weeks ago, I argued that the city needs to keep its historical sculptures, not in prominent places but still visible somewhere so that the history they represent isn’t glossed over or conveniently forgotten. It’s good to change our minds but important to acknowledge the past, even (or especially) if we’d rather not. It’s disingenuous to pretend that the errors never existed. Public art can serve as a medium for confession of the past as well as a proclamation of current values.

I still believe that, but I want to offer a caveat: it’s naive to think we’re going to keep every sculpture, and we certainly don’t have to keep every sculpture intact and “as is.” Who or what the sculpture represents matters, but so do the circumstances of its making. It should be a case-by-case decision and in this case, I’m advocating for Harvey Whitefield Scott to go.

Harvey Whitefield Scott was an early editor of The Oregonian. The inscription on the base of the fallen Mt. Tabor sculpture reads: “Pioneer, Editor, Publisher, Molder of Opinion in Oregon and the Nation.” The ironic part of the “molder of opinion” is that Scott’s opinions are essentially the opposite of the prevailing, majority opinion in Oregon now—maybe it was a negative mold. The Oregon History Project reports that Scott “opposed [d] many of the social reforms of his time including free high schools, state supported schools of higher education, prohibition, women’s suffrage, organized labor, and Oregon’s system of direct primary, initiative, referendum, and recall.” There’s also his stint in a militia group in Washington that violated treaty rights of the Indigenous peoples of the area. 

Felled sculpture of Harvey Whitefield Scott on Mt. Tabor on the morning of October 20. Image from the Oregonian.

The sculpture on Mt. Tabor was commissioned and paid for by Scott’s wife, Margaret N. Scott. She earmarked $20,000 in her will to make a statue of her late husband (in one city record it actually says her “last husband” which presents the tantalizing possibility that there were husbands that preceded him who didn’t get such fancy treatment—but it’s a typo). 

Scott’s sons commissioned Gutzon Borglum to make the sculpture of their father. Borglum was an especially well-regarded sculptor who, at the time, was the head sculptor of the ongoing Mt. Rushmore project (that project started in 1925 and finished in 1941). The City of Portland accepted the sculpture in 1928, and it was dedicated in 1933 in a ceremony that 3000 people attended. The fact that there 3000 people in attendance is mentioned multiple times in the city records as is the fact that Borglum was the head sculptor at Mt. Rushmore. 

Even if the dedication was well attended, it isn’t as though the City of Portland went to great lengths to create a monument to Harvey Whitefield Scott because he was so beloved in the community. It took five years to find a place to put the sculpture. Even during his own time, he appears to have been a controversial figure. A 1913 article in the Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society titled “Harvey W. Scott, Editor–Review of His Half-Century Career and Estimate of His Work” is clearly intended as a panegyric, but there are many passages aimed at explaining that Scott wasn’t really the asshole that people thought he was. If your eulogy spends that much time talking about how you’re not really that terrible, I’d say you have a problem. “His wife liked him” is not really a great argument to keep a public sculpture. 

In February of 2020 (still the “beforetimes”), the pedestal on Mt. Tabor was tagged “F*** a racist,” and, though no group took credit for Scott’s Tuesday morning final downfall, it seems unlikely the motivation was something other than race.

Race is—many say finally—a pressing issue in 2020 and the catalyst for Portland’s recent public monument cull. If we have monuments to racists, is it worth the energy and cost it would take to move and recontextualize them? Besides Scott, three other single figure sculptures have been toppled in recent months: George Washington from Northeast Sandy Boulevard, and, in the Park Blocks, sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Are these sculptures racist?

The 1927 George Washington sculpture on Northeast Sandy and Alameda was pulled down on June 18, 2020. Photo credit: Rebecca Ellis/OPB

There are undeniably issues of racism at play with all three of these figures. Washington owned enslaved people. The pedestal of the Lincoln sculpture was spray painted with “Dakota 38” in reference to the execution of 38 Dakota men that Lincoln approved in 1862 in the aftermath of the Dakota War of that year. Roosevelt held views that can easily be described as “white supremacist.”

All three of the sculptures were donated to the city by the same patron: Dr. Henry Waldo Coe between 1922 and 1928. Coe was a friend of Roosevelt’s so that was presumably his motivation for the donation of that sculpture in 1922. The other two donations, however, seem to have been catalyzed by general nationalist pride. 

It isn’t as though Coe went to great lengths to pick out esoteric or little-known figures. As far as U.S. presidents are concerned, it doesn’t get much more mainstream than Washington and Lincoln. He phoned it in there. Coe did not donate these presidential sculptures to the city in order to advance an agenda of white supremacy or to celebrate the subjugation of BIPOC people. That they’re being read this way in 2020 is symptomatic of another, larger issue.

There are sculptures of presidents that are obviously racist. The sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt that until recently sat outside the Museum of Natural History—that one was racist. There, as in Portland, Teddy Roosevelt triumphantly rides a horse, but in the New York sculpture, he is flanked by two semi-nude figures, one clearly intended to be Indigenous and the other Black. The New York sculpture has been the subject of controversy for years. In 2018, the Museum mounted an exhibition called “Addressing the Statue” in which its curators contextualized the work in the museum but the sculpture was left out front. Leaving the sculpture in place seemed an odd choice to me at the time: the exhibition was so thoughtful and well executed but felt “unfinished” because the work was still there and so prominently displayed. It was finally removed from view at the end of June 2020 and its future fate is still unknown. 

1940 Theodore Roosevelt sculpture removed from the main entrance of the Natural History Museum in New York in June of 2020.

The racism inherent in Portland presidential public art is less obvious but not less present. It isn’t as though Washington is depicted with enslaved people or that there is a bas-relief vignette of the execution of Dakota men on the base of the sculpture of Lincoln. Protestors pulled them down because they’re representative of the systemic racism inherent in the history of the country. The grand story of the United States, the plucky, bootstraps, grand experiment in democracy thing—it leaves people out. It focuses on the experience of white people to the exclusion of everyone else: all men are created equal except.

The presidents have been reduced to neat hagiographies that are woefully incomplete.  “Dakota 38” was spray painted onto the base of the Lincoln sculpture precisely because that isn’t a part of Lincoln’s history that is told. Most Americans can tell you about Washington and the cherry tree and the material of the man’s dentures, but “slave owner” is left out. 

The 1928 Abraham Lincoln sculpture at Southwest Main and Madison was toppled on October 11, 2020. Photo credit: Brittany Peterson.

Henry Waldo Coe donated these sculptures to the city as representatives of the grand narrative of American exceptionalism. He wanted to confirm Oregon’s identity as part of that narrative, so that Portland too would have images of national heroes like other major cities. That doesn’t mean that nearly a century later, they still have to mean the same thing. 

The sculptures can be used as points of departure to tell a more inclusive story. They don’t have to stay face down, but they should be taken off their pedestals. This would be a clear first step in acknowledging that history is complicated and that the people represented were just that— people, accomplished figures but not infallible gods.They were brilliant and flawed and complicated—fathers of American democracy and willing participants in an unjust and racist world. Coe’s president bronzes could be part of rotating art installations that tell the parts of history that have been underemphasized.

Do we need sculptures to achieve this? Maybe not. The presidents will loom large even without these bronze figures. History books can pick up the slack, but I’m partial to visible acknowledgments. The guys stood on pedestals in Portland for nearly a century as unassailable heroes; the undoing of this legacy could use some tangible and public illustration, too. 

What to do with the bronze presidents is more complicated than what to do with a local celebrity like Scott. Even more fraught, in my opinion, are sculptures representative of a narrative or ideology especially relevant to our community: The Promised Land and Coming of the White Man are examples of that and they warrant different consideration (a subject for another time). 

At its best, public art can be how our community tells stories about ourselves to ourselves. In the 21st century, it’s up to the community—as a whole—to carefully and thoughtfully consider the stories we want to tell. In the early 20th century, people with money (and power but mostly money) got to determine the story. Harvey Whitefield Scott’s family wanted the story to be about Scott. Henry Waldo Coe wanted the story to be about the “great men” of the United States. By pulling these monuments down, some Portlanders have forcefully indicated that they want to tell something else.

Many cities across the United States have ballot referendums for November 3 centered on what to do with public monuments, mostly monuments to the Confederacy. This principle of direct community involvement facilitates a more collective decision as to how the community wants to represent itself. It’s certainly more representative than paying to put up a sculpture of your husband.

I (obviously) have opinions on public art, but I’m not any authority—my goal is only to participate in the community conversation. Portland’s Regional Art and Culture Council (RACC) will make the final decisions on the art itself. RACC has gone to great lengths to be representative of the diverse community it serves. The organization’s 2015 equity statement ends with the statement “we commit to humility, optimism, and respect.” It’s hard to feel confident about anything right now, but if those values are centered, I think we’ll be just fine.

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