Statues in Tacoma tell our stories

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

The upheaval and passion earlier this year regarding Confederate statues and monuments has, at minimum, forced many of us to reconsider the purpose and placement of public monuments.

Who are our statues supposed to honor? What actions, beliefs or values are they meant to acknowledge, celebrate and preserve?

I’ve never seen any of the controversial Confederate statues or monuments directly, but I do know that they tend to honor battles, warriors or specific Civil War military or political leaders. The irony though, is that most were constructed ten, twenty, or even thirty or more years after the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Virtually all were constructed, not in times of regional patriotic fervor, but in response to the expanding Civil Rights of former slaves and the responding imposition of Jim Crow laws (1900-1920). Most were on high pedestals in central public places.

These massive, towering monuments were enduring tributes – but to what?

More than 150 years ago they were homages to the Southern “Cause” and its cost in lives and sacrifice. This “Cause” is usually described as a “Noble Cause” that (then and now) defines the South in a way that no other cause defines no other region.

These monuments, or at least the Cause that inspired them, embodied rebellion, treason, open and armed conflict against one’s own government, and most Southern whites would acknowledge, racial oppression, slavery and white supremacy. They were rallies to treason then and still simmer in controversy over 150 years later.

To put it mildly, Tacoma has a very different attitude toward statues and public monuments.

New Beginnings by Larry Anderson, a statue presented to the City of Tacoma in 1984, marking the City's centennial Photo by Morf Morford

New Beginnings by  Larry Anderson, a statue presented to the City of Tacoma in 1984, marking the City’s centennial
Photo by Morf Morford

First of all, we don’t really have a central public square; our statues are not elevated or larger than life. Our statues are not of warriors – and most are not of specific individuals.

Our statues are scattered throughout the city, mostly on sidewalks, human-scaled, set at eye level and primarily of not-great- people doing every day things that represent who we are.

Our tributes are not to great men doing heroic things – they are of a new immigrant arriving at Tacoma’s train station, eager to work and make his place in the world, a fisherman in Old Town bringing a fresh fish home to his wife, a child pulling another child to safety during an earthquake or a young girl showing a leaf to her grandfather in Wright Park.

Bronze statue of Tacoma developer and philanthropist Allen C. Mason by Paul R. Michaels Photo by Morf Morford

Bronze statue of Tacoma developer and philanthropist Allen C. Mason by Paul R. Michaels
Photo by Morf Morford

These are not grand, majestic and inspiring scenes from our history, but they show far better than a sword-bearing general on horseback who were are and what we believe in. We don’t have a “noble cause” – our work and sacrifice – and identity is not on an epic scale. Our statues are life-sized and street level because this is who we are and where we live.

Some, in their fervor to remove statues, say that we should remove the statue of Lenin in Fremont. That statue does not reflect or embody the legacy or history of Fremont – that’s the point.

Lenin’s statue has its place in the absurdist alternate universe of Fremont – it holds a value in direct opposition to grim Socialist programs and oppression. The context is not a tribute to Communism or Gulags – it is more of a nod to the unstoppable power of individuals over ideology, parody over politics and whimsy over sometimes menacing reality. Lenin’s statue could just as easily have been Scrooge McDuck, Marty McFly or Minnie Mouse.

Besides, if we removed the statue of Lenin, would we be obligated to remove the Fremont Troll? (For details on the Fremont Troll, look here The Fremont Troll represents, if nothing else, the inherent whimsy (at least in Fremont) of public monuments.

Photo by Morf Morford

Photo by Morf Morford

Tacoma is not as whimsical as Fremont, but we could establish a monument truer to our history and identity than a troll – I suggest that we establish an octopus statue under the Highway 16 bridge over Pearl (near 6th Avenue) in honor of the giant octopus which is rumored to live among the ruins of the fallen Narrows Bridge. Now there’s a tribute we can all appreciate.