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A Nebraska Town Debates A Statue And The History of Its Founding Father

J. Sterling Morton’s former residence in Nebraska City’s Arbor Day Park features artifacts from the Morton family.
Megan Feeney
America Amplified
J. Sterling Morton’s former residence in Nebraska City’s Arbor Day Park features artifacts from the Morton family.

J. Sterling Morton is revered in his hometown in Nebraska for founding Arbor Day, but now as the town plans for a statue of Morton, some residents are questioning his support for slavery and racist views.

Two years ago, after the Nebraska Legislature voted to replace the state’s statuesof William Jennings Bryan and J. Sterling Morton in Washington, D.C.’s National Statuary Hall, there was only one community that applied to house Morton.

Nebraska City, Nebraska.

Morton, the creator of Arbor Day, is revered for founding the tree-planting holiday here. A citizen statue committee has raised more than $10,000 to cover relocation costs and contribute to site preparation and maintenance.

Now, as the pandemic has delayed the statue’s summer arrival until next year, residents are debating what Morton represents.

There’s more to J. Sterling Morton than planting trees and beautifying the land. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the northern Democrat sought to preserve the Union by protecting slavery.

He opposed President Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and, in the years after the war, he advocated against Black people’s right to vote.

A statue of J. Sterling Morton stands in Arbor Day Park in Nebraska City, Nebraska. Another statue of Morton may be on its way from Washington, D.C., next spring.
Megan Feeney
America Amplified
A statue of J. Sterling Morton stands in Arbor Day Park in Nebraska City, Nebraska. Another statue of Morton may be on its way from Washington, D.C., next spring.

That side of Morton hasn’t been talked about as much in town. This summer, the conversation became unavoidable -- and uncomfortable.

Privately, some commissioners on the Otoe County Board are reconsidering a previous offer they made to place the statue on the county courthouse lawn. A meeting to firm up plans with the statue committee was recently canceled.

No decision has been finalized, said Doug Friedli, a member of the statue committee. As the committee explores other locations, Friedli says its members are also researching Morton’s history and writings.

“We are all aware of Morton's passion for planting trees and promoting agriculture. The committee sees this as a teachable moment to learn more about the views of this local, state and national leader about the Civil War, state's rights, slavery, voting rights.”

At farmers markets and on a popular online county message board, many people said they’d welcome the Morton statue and bristled at questions about the topic, saying it incited division.

Scrutinizing Morton makes people defensive here.

“There’s resistance to it, because there’s pride in it,” said Kirt Manion, who edits the Nebraska City News-Press. “We're not talking about the story of conservation anymore. We’re not talking about the story of trees anymore. You know, why can't you guys just let us talk about that?”

There were other views on race at the time. Morton’s racism can and should be discussed, said Manion.

“He was an intelligent man who thought about things, right? So, you know, we're being fair in this regard to attach some culpability to him as a smart man who was of national prominence.”

Others, like Otoe County resident James Parsons, support the statue returning to Nebraska City but advocate for providing context.

“All I knew about J. Sterling Morton was, you know, plant a tree, plant a tree. I knew the good things he did…. He worked under Grover Cleveland as the Agriculture Secretary and changed farming as we know it.”

Parsons is on the county board that approved the courthouse lawn location.

“But I think, you know, we're looking at history this day, we need to look at it all.”

Parsons wants the county board to take another vote for placing the statue on the courthouse lawn. He is still for it.

“I think it's a great teaching point. I would take my kids there, and I would personally tell them: ‘I don't believe in racism, I don't believe that has any place in this world.’”

Sara Crook agrees that statues are educational. She’s a history professor at Peru State College, and lives on a farm south of Nebraska City.

“If you clearly identify on the marker what it is that you're celebrating about that individual, that’s a key part.”

She thinks the Morton statue shouldn’t be put in the same category as Confederate monuments.

“The difference is the Confederacy was an insurrection against the government. And then you add to that, a lot of those statues were put up with the intention of intimidation during the Jim Crow era.”

This is a statue that needs a home, not a new one being built, she said. Crook cautions against judging people from history by today’s standards.

“There were men in Nebraska City that were probably even more racist. And we don't know about the women because nobody asked them.”

Nebraska City resident Mindy Driskell took a break from playing with her kids at the city pool to explain what she dislikes about placing the statue on public property -- especially the courthouse.

“This is our place where the people of this community go to find justice and equality. He didn't see all people as equal. He saw them more as a bargaining chip during the Civil War just to keep everybody together instead of actually seeing them as people.”

Driskell doesn’t voice her opinion much, because she gets shut down.

“I think it's a touchy subject because he's in the center of our history in Nebraska City, and we do value our history.”

Put it in a museum, Driskell suggests. Morton was a man of his time, but so are we.

“And now we know better.”

At the National Statuary, Bryan’s statue has already been replaced with one of civil rights activist Standing Bear. Morton will be replaced with author Willa Cather when the swap takes place next spring. Lawmakers said the decision wasn’t a reproach; they just wanted a change.

This month, Nebraska City’s library board will meet to discuss whether they’re interested in taking the statue. If they say yes, the city council will take a vote to move it there.

People from all sides of the issue agree that the conversation about Morton is long overdue. It’s just hard to know where -- or how -- to begin.

Behind This Story

Megan Feeney produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. NET is part of the America Amplified network.

Feeney reached out to people in Nebraska City to see how they were evaluating their history’s founder and where they’d like to see a statue of him go.

Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public radio?

Speaking off tape for a little bit before I started recording helped put people at ease. It’s strange right now, because you want intimacy with your subjects, but you have to sit six feet away from them with a mask.

Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?

So many people had strong opinions and were happy to tell me all about their point of view, but hardly anyone agreed to let me use their name in the story. People seem really afraid of blowback -- whether online or from people in their community. Some said their views differed from their family members and they didn’t want to cause tension. Other folks said they were afraid they’d lose their jobs or cause problems for their school-age kids if they told me what they thought. I was struck by how difficult it will be to really start these conversations about race, history and representation, even as people continually told me these were conversations that needed to happen.

Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?

I think it’s helpful to ask people what values or life experiences are guiding their point of view or choices. It helps get away from political talking points.

Megan Feeney
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