The new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture is a remarkable place. Rising in black and bronze next to the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., it stands out spectacularly from the marble and faux Classical architecture that dominates the national capital.
The contents of the museum are even more engaging than the museum building itself. The artifacts within the building tell the story of how black Americans rose from slavery and poverty to some of the nation’s highest offices — including the Oval Office.
One of the first things visitors to the museum see as they enter is a statue of Thomas Jefferson.
Our nation’s third President, he’s remembered for his devout belief in the liberty of ordinary people and his passionate support for individual rights.
Jefferson has his own memorial in D.C., a marble dome with columns facing the Tidal Basin. It’s a towering place that invites visitors to stand and reflect on the Rights of Man.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” states one inscription on his memorial, quoting the Declaration of Independence.
In the new museum, Jefferson’s portrayal is different.
You see, despite his beliefs in personal liberty, Jefferson was a slaveholder. He bought and sold human beings.
In the new museum, Jefferson stands in bronze, holding a book and surrounded by bricks bearing the names of his slaves. Most are only identified by a single name because Jefferson didn’t bother to record them in detail.
When it comes to our memories of Jefferson, context is everything.
Next year, to observe the 150th anniversary of the cession of Alaska from Russia to the United States, a group of Juneau residents has organized the erection of a bronze statue of William Henry Seward, the Secretary of State who orchestrated Alaska’s cession.
Like Jefferson, Seward is a figure to be admired. Where Jefferson was a slaveholder, Seward was a liberator working alongside Abraham Lincoln. Seward believed in universal education and supported the rights of immigrants.
But also like Jefferson, Seward’s story isn’t simple.
Seward was a classic American imperialist who believed in Manifest Destiny — the idea that the United States would inevitably annex or conquer all of North America. He didn’t care in particular for Alaska — he was driven to acquire it only as part of that goal. As he pursued Alaska, he also pursued Greenland, the Danish Virgin Islands and Hawaii.
He did all this with no thought to what the residents of those places wanted. At no time did the wishes of Alaska’s Native people enter his mind.
When he visited Sitka in 1869, Seward envisioned a surge of white immigration to Alaska that would allow the territory to develop its resources.
“The Indian tribes will do here as they seem to have done in Washington Territory and British Columbia: they will merely serve the turn until civilized white men come,” Seward declared in a speech.
Among Alaska Natives, Seward’s legacy is complicated, and the new statue destined to stand in front of the Alaska Capitol should recognize that fact.
If this statue is intended to stand for all Alaskans, it should represent all Alaskans.
It is too late — and we would not support — changing the design of the statue, but there are alternatives. The statue is destined to stand on a marble block, and perhaps that block’s design could borrow from the new Jefferson design by incorporating the names of Alaska’s Native tribes.
The plaza surrounding the statue could be landscaped to incorporate Native design and culture.
In both cases, the message should be clear: Seward accomplished a great thing, but underlying all his work is the people and culture of Alaska’s original people.
This new statue is designed to stand for decades. A simple interpretive sign is not sufficient. Give the statue its appropriate context.