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UW Chancellor: Lincoln statue will stay on “expropriated” land

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The statue of Abraham Lincoln adorning the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus will remain standing, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement Thursday.

The statement comes in response to recent demonstrations in Madison, where protesters made calls to remove certain statues downtown.  Protesters made good on those promises Tuesday night tearing down the Hans Christian Heg statue and 1893 Colombian Expo “Forward” replica atop State Street on the Capitol square. 

“As the leader of UW–Madison, I believe that Abraham Lincoln’s legacy… should be both celebrated and critiqued,” Blank said in her statement. As an example, Blank argued that while the University relied on “money from land expropriated from Native Americans,” the Lincoln-era land-grant Universities–like UW–have increased access to upward social mobility. 

The University is committed to supporting President Lincoln’s history, according to Blank’s statement, which may, after 150 years, “appear flawed.”

Blank did include news, however, that the University is currently engaged in efforts to create a future land acknowledgement project for the Ho-Chunk people, according to her statement. 

Nalah McWhorter, president of the Black Student Union at UW-Madison, said in an interview with Channel3000’s Amy Reid Thursday night that Blank’s response was inadequate.

“For them to want to protect a breathless, lifeless statue more than they care about the experiences of their Black students that have been crying out for help for the past 50, 60 years, it’s just a horrible feeling as a student, as a Black and brown student on campus,” she said.

“The University continues to support the Abraham Lincoln statue on our campus,” Blank said in her Thursday statement. Lincoln, in Blank’s words, “persuaded Congress to adopt the 13th Amendment ending slavery.” 

The 13th Amendment legalized slavery as a form of punishment for those convicted of a crime. In 2018, a UW-Madison study found that African Americans living in the state of Wisconsin experienced poverty at a rate three to four times that of white residents. The study also cited incarceration rates as a contributing factor.

In Dane County, the percentage of black people living in poverty was 35 percent in 2006, compared to just nine percent of white people. That gap has grown wider with time. 

Blank’s statement comes during a week of racial unrest in Madison.

On Sunday, June 21, a woman was struck by a pickup truck in a hit-and-run. MPD used pepper spray on the victim’s family when they responded to the scene. Thursday night, MPD announced they arrested Brendan J. Oneil for his actions on a single count of hit-and-run causing injuries. He was released on $350 bail within two hours of his booking.

Protesters took to the streets Tuesday following activist Yeshua Musa’s arrest Tuesday, and on at least four occasions, drivers struck or attempted to strike protesters with cars. Protesters toppled two statues on the Capitol Square.

Then on  Wednesday, June 24, Althea Berstein, 18, who is studying to become an EMT, said she was attacked on Gorham Street by four white men who sprayed lighter fluid on her face, lighting it and causing Berstein to sustain second and third degree burns to her face.

Madison police and the FBI are investigating.

Full June 25, 2020 statement from Chancellor Blank:

“As an educational institution whose mission is to serve and strengthen Wisconsin, our country and the world, our mission is to educate and to advance the boundaries of knowledge and understanding of the human condition. In pursuing our mission, we believe deeply in justice and equity for all people. UW–Madison continues to work on creating a diverse and inclusive campus that supports Black and BIPOC students, faculty and staff and the fight against racism.

We’re in conversations with a variety of campus stakeholders and partners about how to do more and do better.  Current efforts include both a public history project and a land acknowledgement in recognition that the university sits upon Ho-Chunk land.  Everyone agrees that there is much more to do.

The university continues to support the Abraham Lincoln statue on our campus. Like those of all presidents, Lincoln’s legacy is complex and contains actions which, 150 years later, appear flawed.  However, when the totality of his tenure is considered, Lincoln is widely acknowledged as one of our greatest presidents, having issued the Emancipation Proclamation, persuaded Congress to adopt the 13th Amendment ending slavery and preserved the Union during the Civil War.

As the leader of UW–Madison, I believe that Abraham Lincoln’s legacy should not be erased but examined, that it should be both celebrated and critiqued. To give just one example – without Lincoln, public land-grant universities like ours might not exist.  These universities have been engines of social mobility and economic growth for citizens who would never otherwise have had access to higher education.  Yet we recognize that the very act that created these universities relied on money from land expropriated from Native Americans.

We have a lot of work to do here at the university to address systemic racism and oppression and there is a role for every member of our community. In addition to the resources and initiatives already under way, I will be sharing some new actions and commitments soon . I invite you to join us in these efforts to build a better, more inclusive campus.”

Full May, 31 2020 statement from Chancellor Blank:

The events happening this week in the Twin Cities, across the nation and here in Madison demonstrate the anger that members of our community feel over years of unequal treatment. This anger demands meaningful action, particularly for those of us who are in positions of privilege.

I recognize that words condemning the tragic and inexcusable death of George Floyd are not enough. UWPD Chief Kristen Roman and her fellow Dane County chiefs are already engaged with the community to reduce trust gaps and improve safety through the Law Enforcement and Leaders of Color Collaboration. I appreciate the work that UWPD has done to ensure that its training and policies protect and serve our communities of color as effectively as they protect and serve other members of our community.

Our work extends beyond law enforcement to every facet of our institution. Although most of us cannot physically be on campus because the of the coronavirus, we continue to work on creating a more inclusive and diverse community through the efforts of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement; admissions and recruitment; faculty/staff recruitment and retention; Student Affairs; the Office of Human Resources, our schools and colleges, as well as within individual departments and units.

Each of us – particularly those of us who do not face the daily challenge of living amid inequity and injustice – must contribute to and lead the change that is needed. There are many ways to become more aware and involved. A list of resources is available on the DDEEA website.

Our campus has a long and proud tradition of helping bring about lasting change through peaceful protest. Thousands of people gathered peacefully at the Capitol Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, a small number chose to engage in destructive acts that attacked already-struggling local businesses. I condemn this violence; it drowns out the message that needs to be heard and is likely to create backlash and more anger on all sides, rather than promote the changes that are needed.

I urge anyone participating in protests to engage in peaceful activism that drives towards systemic change. Use the power and privilege of your education to speak up, reject hate, racism and violence, and respect and build our community. Please take care for your own safety and those around you in this time of COVID-19.

Finally, I encourage those who are anxious or angry about recent national events to connect with the campus resources that are here to support you. These include the Multicultural Student Center, DDEEA, University Health Services and the Employee Assistance Office.

To our Black and Brown students, staff and faculty, I want to say unambiguously: You belong here, you are important to this campus, your lives matter and I am committed to your safety.

This is a time of unprecedented challenge but I remain steadfast in the belief that together, we can move forward toward a more just future.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank