SPRINGFIELD — The figure at the center of a statue debate in the city of Edwardsville has a final resting place in Central Illinois at Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Ninian Edwards, who served one term as Illinois' third governor from 1826 to 1830, is buried in the "Aristocracy Hill" part of the cemetery.
Edwards served as territorial governor for three terms before Illinois was granted statehood in 1818. He settled in the Metro East region known as the American Bottom when he was appointed territorial governor in 1809.
When Edwards served as governor, Vandalia was the state's capital, though two of his sons, Ninian Wirt Edwards and Benjamin Edwards, became prominent Springfield residents.
A Facebook group of nearly 650 people has petitioned Edwardsville's leaders to remove Edwards' statue and his name from the plaza where it sits, arguing that he owned slaves and used his power to protect the practice. Edwardsville, in Madison County, is about 75 miles southeast of Springfield.
The action comes in light of Confederate monuments and other statuary of controversial figures like Christopher Columbus being removed in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25. Protests sparked by the killing of Floyd and others like Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor have signaled for an end to police brutality and racism.
A representative from the Edwardsville group did not respond to an inquiry from The State Journal-Register last week.
William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, said while it was true that Edwards owned slaves when he came to the Illinois Territory from Kentucky, it was "the law of the land."
"It wasn't as if slavery didn't exist," Furry added.
Edwards was "a citizen of his time, just as we all are," Furry said. "Times change, attitudes change, laws change and people change. Chattel slavery was wrong. Denying and repressing the equal rights of women and African-Americans was wrong, but not knowing history is unforgivable."
Furry suggested the group "take a step back and examine history."
"The statue is something for us to learn from, not run from," he added.
Sunshine Clemons, the president of Black Lives Matter Springfield, said as a general rule she is supportive of statues of Confederate leaders and slaveholders, like Edwards, coming down.
"It's not a reminder of history," Clemons said, but a glorification of the beliefs people held.
"There can be a place for them in history museums," Clemons added. "We don't need them permanently displayed. The more prominent places that are representative of everyone, that's the wrong place for them."
Clemons also advocated for the removal of statues of former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Stephen Douglas over his views on slavery. Douglas advocated for popular sovereignty, the belief that each territory should be allowed to determine whether to permit slavery within its borders.
There is one statue of Douglas inside the Illinois Capitol Building and one on the Capitol grounds. There is also a painting of Douglas, a political foe of Abraham Lincoln's known as the "Little Giant," in the Illinois House chamber.
Slavery or indentured servitude in Illinois is part of the state's "complicated story," acknowledged Illinois State Historian Samuel Wheeler.
Edwards "owns slaves, buys slaves and rents out slaves," Wheeler said, unlike his predecessor as governor, Edward Coles, who set his slaves free.
Edwards defeated a measure passed by the Illinois Territory legislature in 1817 that would have stopped indentured servitude, a contractual form of slavery, "because he has a vested interest in those assets," Wheeler said.
Taking down monuments, Wheeler noted, "doesn't mean you erase history. (The group in Edwardsville) isn't erasing (Edwards') name from the history books. Those folks are sending a message to future generations that they don't stand behind the things (Edwards) stood for."
Edwards was buried in Belleville when he died in 1833, but his remains were later moved to Hutchinson Cemetery, the present site of Springfield High School. Edwards' remains were re-interred at Oak Ridge in 1866, said Lashonda Fitch, the cemetery's executive director.
Edwards Place has been owned and operated by the Springfield Art Association since 1913 and is Benjamin Edwards' former residence where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, among others, visited.
Ninian Wirt Edwards' residence on South Second Street, demolished in 1918, is where Lincoln came to call on his future bride, Mary Todd. Ninian Wirt Edwards was married to Elizabeth Todd and would become Lincoln's brother-in-law.
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