Portrait of Edward Coles by E. B. Washburn / U.S. public domain.
Recently, renewed efforts have been made to diversify the kinds of Americans commemorated by public monuments. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an op-ed by David Blight, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer of Frederick Douglass; as the title of the piece put it, “There’s a Chance to Tell a New American Story” — in part by erecting new statues honoring previously neglected heroes, the kind of men and women who might truly represent “a richly pluralistic version of American history to the largest possible public.”
Similar efforts have been undertaken before. But sometimes the monumental honor hasn’t quite gone as planned.
Take the case of the small town of Edwardsville, Illinois, 25 miles up the road from St. Louis. In a cemetery alongside old Route 66 in Edwardsville stands a monument to Edward Coles, a Virginia slaveholder by birth who became an abolitionist, moved west, and in 1822 was elected the second governor of Illinois on an anti-slavery platform. Built in 1928, the art deco monument to Coles is a flat panel of cut Indiana limestone, 30 feet wide and 12 feet tall, with a bronze bas-relief of the abolitionist statesman in the middle.
Beneath Coles’s image is the inscription: “Commemorating the career of EDWARD COLES who by steadfastness and courage in 1823 and 1824 kept slavery out of the Constitution of Illinois, a grateful State marks this spot in the community where his noble work was done.”
The monument does not, however, really mark “the spot in the community where his noble work was done.” Coles in fact had filed emancipation papers for his slaves at a frontier courthouse two miles away. The monument was originally planned for that site, but at the last minute wealthy white business owners diverted the monument to a private cemetery they were building south of town.
There, the monument meant to celebrate Edward Coles for fighting slavery became, instead, a taxpayer-funded amenity for a segregated private cemetery.
The Edward Coles Monument is a limestone reminder that even monuments to those on the right side of history have the potential to be subverted by racist white elites.
Born into a wealthy slave-owning family in Virginia in 1786, Edward Coles served as James Madison’s secretary and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson. But while studying at the College of William and Mary, Coles became convinced that slavery was morally indefensible. In 1819, he took 17 enslaved adults and children with him to the Northwest Territories. Coles told them they were free while floating down the Ohio River. Continuing to the frontier courthouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, Coles registered papers of emancipation for his freed slaves on July 4. Five years later, Coles was serving as Illinois’s second governor and prevented a new Constitutional convention that likely would have allowed slavery in the state.
Based on this record, Edward Coles certainly seems worthy of honor, even in 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
But if we turn our attention to the monument, the story gets complicated. A prominent newspaper editor launched a campaign to honor Coles in the late-nineteenth century, writing that Coles was “one whose memory should be gratefully perpetuated” since “to him is due the honor of saving Illinois from the withering curse of slavery.” Yet this was precisely the moment when Edwardsville, like other St. Louis suburbs on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, developed a complex and pernicious system of racial segregation.
No matter: Coles, after all, was white, and his memory was cherished by local whites.
In 1919, the Illinois General Assembly set aside $5,000 for a monument to Coles. Inflation after World War I raised the price of monument-building materials and the state’s investment was soon inadequate. Plans for the monument lingered for a decade, until Edwardsville’s Rotary Club pressured the state to build a memorial.
Edwardsville’s Rotary Club and African American leaders wanted the monument built, logically enough, at the site of the old courthouse where Coles filed emancipation papers the previous century. As fate would have it, the courthouse had been torn down, and replaced by the Lincoln School for Black students in Edwardsville’s segregated public school system.
But at the last minute, an influential group of local white businessmen hijacked the process and steered the monument to a new cemetery they were building alongside the highway to St. Louis (which on November 11, 1926, would officially become U.S. Route 66).
The cemetery group donated land to the state and offered an additional $2,000 to fund the monument. State officials agreed to build the monument at the cemetery, emphasizing that it would draw “auto-ists” traveling the new highway. Feeling guilty for steering the monument away from the Black school, state officials recommended a tablet be placed at the Lincoln School. Black leaders objected, again saying they wanted the monument built at the Lincoln School. Sympathetic white residents agreed. One woman wrote, “it does not seem fair for us to put the monument in our cemetery or in any other location where from the negro will be . . . barred. Gov. Coles will belong, then, wholly to the white people.”
The state nonetheless selected the white-owned cemetery and the Lincoln School refused a conciliatory tablet.
When completed in 1928, the monument was promptly ignored. The Coles Memorial became a tool for the cemetery to sell burial plots, rather than a monument to abolition. The cemetery ran newspaper advertisements featuring photographs of the Coles Monument and encouraged readers to “See Valley View First” for their burial plans.
As the decades passed, the monument and the cemetery declined precipitously. Maintenance of the memorial was deferred due to Illinois’s ongoing budget woes. The monument was choked with overgrown weeds and shrubs. The surrounding cemetery fell into receivership and was so poorly maintained that at least one family dug up a grave and moved it to another cemetery. Local preservationists finally cleaned and restored the monument in the 1990s.
Recently, many Americans have called for new, more diverse and inclusive monuments and statues to replace those taken down. When a group of citizens in Edwardsville called for the removal of a statue of Ninian Edwards, the town’s namesake and a slaveowner, people in a Facebook group suggested replacing that statue with a monument to Edward Coles.
They were apparently unaware that the state had built a Coles monument in Edwardsville nearly a century earlier.
Jeffrey Manuel is associate professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.