On the grounds of the State Capitol building in Albany, NY, resides a statue of city native General Philip Sheridan. Erected in 1914 while many Civil War veterans were still alive, the memorial honors Sheridan who played an important role the defeat of the Confederacy. After the war, Sheridan was put in command of the Department of the Missouri to fight the various Native American tribes and bring them into submission.
As widely reported in various sources, including writers/historians Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Evan S. McConnell in his exhausted biography of George Armstrong Custer Son of the Morning Star, Sheridan is also rather infamously noted as saying, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” While Sheridan himself reportedly denied saying this (though his actual denial seems undocumented), his denial alone is not credible given that his actions certainly reflected the spirit of the saying. The wars, lies, and betrayals that nearly destroyed the Plains Indian culture were committed under his command.
There are few phrases that more embody the offensively racist and genocidal attitude of a nation against an ethnic group, and we have a statue of the person to whom it is attributed to, and who led the campaign to take their lands, on the grounds of the New York State Capitol.
In the past, when I served as a reporter, whenever I interviewed a state or local representative I invariably would ask them about the statue of Sheridan and what he reportedly said. I never met one who was even aware this heinous comment is credited to him. Not one.
New York State still has reservations for Mohawk and Seneca Indians and their populations are greatly reduced from the many thousands who once possessed the land the state now claims for its own. How do you think they feel when visiting the State Capitol and see this statue? If you can’t imagine that, then consider what if there was a statue of someone who said the only good White people he ever saw were dead? Get it now?
Across from the statue of Philip Sheridan in front of Albany City Hall stands the statue of Revolutionary War Hero Philip Schuyler which is scheduled to be removed due to his own history with slavery. Schuyler was a mediocre general whose plan for the invasion of Canada was a failure and was court martialed, but acquitted, for his role in the loss of Fort Ticonderoga. He is perhaps and more famous for hosting some of the most notable people of the times at his home in Albany (which still stands), including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. His daughter Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton.
According to a Jun. 18, 2016, article in The Guardian, forensic examination of the bodies of 14 slaves (one man, six women, five children, and two infants) owned by Schuyler showed the adults were worked hard and, despite being well-muscled, had severe arthritis and some broken bones, typical of the treatment of people in bondage sentenced to a life of hard labor. It is notable that half of the dead found were children.
By a large margin, the only people demanding these statues remain are of European heritage whose ancestors felt no impact from the institution of slavery in the United States.
I am not ignorant of history. My master’s degree is in both history and literature, so I understand the contributions of both Sheridan and Schuyler to the nation. However, ancient Greece and Rome, on whose foundations our Western culture was built, erected statues in public places of those individuals who represented their heroic ideals. When those individuals fell from grace it was common for those statues to be removed, and the Romans simply swapped out the head with that of someone else. In fact, the statues of emperors, senators, and generals were often made with replaceable heads with just that purpose in mind.
By removing those statues and putting them in museums where they belong we are not forgetting or rewriting the past. Rather, we are finally listening to the voices we have ignored for far too long.
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