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Voters Will Decide Whether To Keep Controversial Statues Of Jackson County's Racist Namesake

Rhonda LeValdo
Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
Native American activist Rhonda LeValdo at the Andrew Jackson statue in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

Jackson County voters will decide whether or not to remove two prominent statues of President Andrew Jackson. Some county leaders say that Jackson’s white supremacist views shouldn't be celebrated today.

A statue of Andrew Jackson astride a horse sits in front of both Jackson County courthouses, including the one in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

As art, it's not bad. A dashing Jackson looks like he's got something on his mind, and the horse is plenty lifelike too.

The problem, especially for Native American activist Rhonda LeValdo, is that Andrew Jackson was arguably a terrible person.

"It tries to make him look brave and like he did something great in this country, and really he was responsible for the killing and mass killing of so many native people," says LeValdo, looking at the Jackson sculpture outside the downtown courthouse for the first time.

When he was president in 1830, Andrew Jackson pushed through and signed the Indian Removal Act, which forced some Native American tribes east of the Mississippi to vacate their land and move west, killing thousands in the process.

Jackson also owned enslaved people, a lot of them.

"He was, as we say, an unapologetic slave owner. He never seemed to question the morality of that," says Howard Kittell, president and CEO of the Andrew Jackson Foundation. "Jackson reflected the America of his time. He was not an outlier."

Jackson was born into an immigrant family without a father. His mother and both siblings died in the Revolutionary War. An orphan at 14, he fought his way to wealth and political prominence.

Jackson carried bullets in his body from a duel and a gunfight. His vicious temper undercut his political career, but the War of 1812 sent it soaring.

"In 1815, he defeated the British in a resounding battle, called the Battle of New Orleans," Kittell says. "That is what ultimately put him into the White House. He became the hero of New Orleans and became this national figure."

In 1826, Jackson County, Missouri, was named after the war hero. Two years later, Jackson was elected president.

President Jackson helped stall the Civil War and paid off the national debt for the first and only time in U.S. history. But Kittell says Jackson never forgot his hardscrabble roots.

"Jackson was known as the 'people's president' or the 'president of the common man' and that he championed the rights of the common man," says Kittell. "And when I say common man I mean, common white man."

Jackson's brand of white supremacist populism may have been a selling point in his own era and the early 20th century, when the statues went up in Kansas City and Independence, but Jackson County Legislator Jalen Anderson says it doesn't fly now.

"It's hurtful to anyone of any race to see that there was at a time that the president of the United States did not believe that you should have any rights," says Anderson. "So, why is this on public property or in front of the courthouse?"

After the racial reckoning that followed the police killing of George Floyd, Anderson, who is biracial, led an effort to remove the statues and put them in museums, unleashing what he says was a torrent of harassment and racial abuse.

Many Confederate monuments and at least one Andrew Jackson sculpture have come down this year around the country. Typically, the issue hasn't gone to a public vote. Either protestors have toppled the statues, or local governments have voted to take them down.

Jackson County Executive Frank White, who experienced the sharp sting of overt racism in Mississippi as a kid, says county legislators wouldn't go along with a vote to remove the monuments and instead put the issue on the ballot.

"I think this is a great time for our community to make a strong statement for equal rights and equal justice," says White.

But while the timing may be right, White is not optimistic that Jackson County voters will approve removing the statues. If that doesn't happen, he and Anderson hope to add art or signage to put the monuments into a fuller historical context.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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