A statue of William Henry Seward, former U.S. Senator and governor of New York, Vice President and Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase of the Alaska territory from the Russian Empire in 1867 on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

A statue of William Henry Seward, former U.S. Senator and governor of New York, Vice President and Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase of the Alaska territory from the Russian Empire in 1867 on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Opinion: Which parts of our history should be enshrined?

We need to expand our ideas for the statuary in the Court Plaza.

  • Wednesday, June 24, 2020 10:10am
  • Opinion

The Empire’s front page Sunday, June 21, featured the statue of William Henry Seward and, inside, a My turn opinion by Dr. Rosita Worl of Sealaska Heritage Foundation. Our local stew pot of many multiple and urgent issues has just been heated and stirred. I feel the need to chime in on this one. The Empire published my first letter on Secretary Seward and statuary in Juneau’s Courthouse Plaza on Aug. 10, 2015. I’ll spare readers a repetition of the whole letter, but the general point I was trying to make then is even more relevant in these days as we struggle to find answers to questions like: are “We” truly “The People…” envisioned in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution?

[Hundreds call for statue’s removal]

If we are those people, what do we really believe and what is democracy really all about for those who do not — in their common interests — command the votes needed to assure that their most basic needs for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are met?

One point in my 2015 letter was that the Seward statue should stay in the plaza, though perhaps removed from his pedestal. That way we can appreciate him at an eye-to-eye level rather than as some abstract, powerful, fearful and God-like entity above us all as he now appears. He was a man, after all, and flawed, as was his wartime President, Abraham Lincoln. and as are we all. Near the end of the Civil War in January 1865 these two flawed men made their personal bond and compact with the social engineering and the dirty political brickwork of compromise needed to abolish slavery in “…perpetuity and forever.”

[Opinion: Removing the statue would be ‘Political Correctness Gone Wild’]

Their political band of blood brothers — who were within a few months of winning the Civil War — felt the task of permanent emancipation politically impossible. They further believed that Lincoln certainly had no need for more glory in the eyes of history.

In the end, the process had required the conversion of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation into the 13th Amendment (subtitled: “Abolition of Slavery”) to the Constitution of the United States. In their final congressional success, with two votes to spare, they achieved a monument to human progress, in its two sections and 43 words, greater in my view than all the pyramids of all the Pharaohs of Egypt.

[Removing statue would be consisten with views of Southeast Alaska Natives]

My other point, in my 2015 letter, is that we need to expand our ideas for the statuary in the Court Plaza. With his purchase of territory from the Russians, Seward made it possible to eventually have Alaska as a state in the United States of America. Now, let us honor those Alaskans who by the example of their lives and works here in Alaska have built that territory into a great state. In these troubled times we need to now begin a discussion of an unpedastalled Secretary Seward standing alongside four Seward sized Alaskans in the Plaza.

[Opinion: Now is the time to develop empathy on all levels]

For statues of Alaskans I nominate Elizabeth Peratrovich, advocate for the civil rights of Alaska’s native people; Bill Egan, Valdez shopkeeper , Chairman of Alaska’s Constitutional convention and Alaska’s first Governor; Wally Hickel, Anchorage businessman, second Governor, U.S. Secretary of the Interior and broker for a resolution of the land and financial settlement claims of Alaska’s Native peoples against the U.S. government thus clearing a path for construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline; and, finally, the fourth Alaskan, Rie Munoz, visual Artist who has given us a rich visual record of who we are at work and at play in every region of Alaska in “…perpetuity and forever.” Let these discussions begin.

• Jerry Smetzer Resident of Juneau, Fairbanks and Alaska since 1958. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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