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Statues Of Jackson County's Racist Namesake Will Soon Bear A Plaque To Explain His Problematic Legacy

Vickie Newton
KCUR 89.3
The Andrew Jackson statue stands uncovered in front of the Jackson County Court House in Kansas City in November.

Plans for a plaque that would contextualize the deeds of former President Andrew Jackson were put on hold for months. But after voters failed to pass a measure to remove them, plans are back on to add the plaques.

The coronavirus pandemic upset many things, including plans to place a plaque on statues of Andrew Jackson that sit outside county courthouses in Kansas City and Independence, Missouri.

Now, days after 59% of county voters rejected a proposal to remove the statues altogether, those plans are back on.

"The plaque will come," Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said, "a little delayed, but appropriately so."

Peters Baker has been pushing for the plaque for more than a year. She estimated it could be several weeks before they are placed.

"I walked by the statue one too many times, I guess, and decided what must others think when they walk by the statue," she said. "I wondered if it were possible that people — especially if you were a minority — if you felt like justice could be attained in that building for you, when you walk by that bit of American history."

In December 2019, her office agreed to pay for a plaque that would contextualize the deeds of Jackson County's controversial namesake. Those plans were approved by county lawmakers, and Peters Baker's office moved forward with accepting bids and finding a contractor.

Months later, COVID-19 struck and the contractor stopped work as the country hunkered down to flatten the curve. Things have been on hold ever since.

Gaylene Crouser, executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said the Election Day results were a bit surprising, but the plaque idea is better than nothing.

"I mean it is a way to educate people about it," she said.

While he was president, Andrew Jackson was largely responsible for the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The move resulted in the forced relocation of many Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River. About 4,000 Cherokees died during the march westward, which became known as "the Trail of Tears."

Jackson was also an unapologetic slaveholder.

"A lot of people are just so unaware of all that," Crouser said. "What people know about Indian people is all very stereotypical...and all relegated to the past, and they don’t really think about that we’re still here in Jackson County."

Native American activist Rhonda LeValdo at the Andrew Jackson Statue downtown
Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
Native American activist Rhonda LeValdo at the Andrew Jackson Statue downtown

When Native American activist Rhonda LeValdo sees the statues of Andrew Jackson, she can't help but think of the lives, languages and ceremonies lost in the expulsion he was responsible for.

"It’s a tragic history, and I hate looking at that and being reminded of what this country tried to do to our people," LeValdo said. It's why she and the Kansas City Indian Center still want to the statue to come down.

LeValdo said placing a plaque on the statues only serves to minimize the country's legacy of racism, not denounce it.

She explained, "But you know, you can’t just be a little bit racist. You’re either racist or you’re not."

The county prosecutor's plaque plans were further complicated this summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the demonstrations it kicked off in Kansas City.

LeValdo gives the local Black Lives Matter movement credit for drawing attention to the statues and for teaching people about Jackson's bloody legacy.

In July, the Jackson County Legislature debated whether to remove the statues, an effort driven largely by County Executive Frank White and Legislator Jalen Anderson, who are both African American. The body eventually decided to put the question to voters on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The pandemic, protests and impending vote were enough to convince Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to wait a bit longer — until after the vote.

"I didn't want to pay for a plaque that was going to be on a statue that was going to be nonexistent," she said.

But voters opted to leave the statues. In Kansas City, Missouri, 60% of them voted to remove the statue, but they were outweighed by voters in the rest of Jackson County, 72% of whom chose to keep them.

Two identical plaques, a mock-up of which is shown, will be placed on the granite base of statues of President Andrew Jackson in downtown Kansas City and Independence.
Jackson County Prosecutor's Office
Two identical plaques, a mock-up of which is shown, will be placed on the granite base of statues of President Andrew Jackson in downtown Kansas City and Independence.

Language for the plaque was written in consultation with a historian, said Peters Baker, and with input from the Freedom Inc. organization and individual Native American groups.

The prosecutor admits it's not a perfect solution.

"But it is a more honest answer for the situation that we are in," she said. "The voters voted, and, whether we agree with the outcome of the vote or we do not, as Americans, we honor that system."

For her part, Crouser can't see county lawmakers going against the will of the people anytime soon, but hasn't lost hope for the statues' eventual removal.

"I mean, I don’t think it’s going to happen in a month, or probably even six months," she said. "No matter what happens, people are going to fight on, and eventually it’ll happen."

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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