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Speaker Calls To Remove Stephen Douglas Imagery From Capitol

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Statues in the city of Alton depict Stephen Douglas (L) and Abraham Lincoln (R) debating.

SPRINGFIELD — It was only a matter a time that recent events caused someone to focus in on Illinois State Capitol statues dedicated to those with racist pasts. Now, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is calling for the removal of two statues sitting outside the State Capitol and a portrait inside the chamber of the Illinois House.

Madigan issued a statement calling for the removal of a portrait and statue of Stephen A. Douglas, who defeated Abraham Lincoln in the 1858 U.S. election, marked by the famous series of Lincoln-Douglas debates across the state. Douglas believed slavery was an issue best left up to each territory.

“While reading Sidney Blumenthal’s book ‘All the Powers of Earth’ concerning the pre-Civil War period a few months ago, I learned of Stephen Douglas’ disturbing past as a Mississippi slave owner and his abhorrent words toward people of color. I advised my staff to research and confirm the history to support removing the Douglas portrait from the House chamber,” Madigan said in a written statement. “I became more resolute in my decision to remove the Douglas portrait as we witnessed the tragic killing of George Floyd, and the bravery of so many who have stood up and spoken out against injustice that has never been fully addressed.”

“So today, I am taking the first important step of removing this unnecessary reminder of our country’s painful past. When the Illinois House returns in the fall, I will offer a resolution to be voted on by the House to authorize removal of the Douglas portrait,” he said.

He is also asking that Douglas’ portrait be replaced by one of former President Barack Obama. The speaker said he is looking for ways to cover the portrait until then.

The Stephen Douglas portrait in the Illinois House. It will be replaced with a portrait of Barack Obama. Office of the Speaker, Illinois House

Along with the removal of the Douglas statue, he is asking the State Capitol Architect to remove the statue of Pierre Menard.  Menard was Illinois’ first Lieutenant Governor.   His statue shows him standing above a Native American. 

The Speaker is asking that a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr be moved from its location across Second street from the Capitol to what he calls “a location of more prominence and honor.”

“I ask that the Office of the Architect move expeditiously on this matter to take a vote in the coming days to remove these statues,” Madigan added.

He is also asking for a review of all statues, portraits, and symbols at the State Capitol.

“Of course, removing these images does not erase our history, but it is one more step in acknowledging the suffering of so many and committing to creating a better Illinois for everyone,” said the speaker.

In early July, The Illinois Times wrote an article and inquired about the statues.

Bill Wheelhouse is a reporter for NPR Illinois in Springfield.

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