EAST GREENWICH—The East Greenwich Historical Preservation Society (EGHPS) quietly removed the one-of-a-kind statues of a white prisoner and black prisoner that adorned its façade late last week after a local doctor issued an email to the organization implying that the sculptures would be taken down by vandalism if the organization did not remove them by choice.
“As you are no doubt aware, statues and monuments commemorating racist or exploitative figures are being toppled world-wide,” read an email from East Greenwich resident Johann Patlak which was shared with The Pendulum. “Now is the time for the EGHPS to take a stand. Don’t wait for someone else to remove these figures.”
Following the reception of the message, members of the EGHPS expressed concern about the state of the community and the idea that residents would resort to such tactics to pursue a political agenda. Many were also concerned that too few residents understand the vital work the organization has done in recent years to commemorate the town’s unique role in history, particularly concerning its research and coverage of Winsor Fry, the once-slave turned revolutionary who is buried in the town and whose grave the society helped to locate.
The EGHPS issued a formal statement expressing its reasoning for taking down the statues.
“The East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society has removed the reproduction carved figures of the black and white shackled prisoners on the front of the ‘Old Jail’ building in East Greenwich, our headquarters, as they could be viewed as insensitive or offensive,” the statement reads. “
“The reproduction statues are currently safe and we will soon open discussions with members as to where they will, with appropriate signage, be displayed (or hung) next,” it added.
Some members of the organization, however, privately expressed concern that they might be being intimidated into erasing history to protect someone’s feelings. Indeed, one reason given for the society’s swift removal of the statues was the fact that a black lives matter protest held on Saturday, which was organized by Patlak, was originally proposed to congregate at the doorsteps of the EGHPS in the Old Jail. The protest Saturday was largely attended by the town’s youth, who listened to a speech delivered by Patluck.
“We’re standing in solidarity with the black lives matter movement,” Patlak said before, perhaps ironically, adding that “we need to know our history.”
During the speech, Patlak also recited a common idea currently being promoted by the New York Times 1619 Project, that states the wealth of America is owed solely to slaves. The project and its ideas have been roundly condemned by professional historians for misrepresenting historical fact to accommodate modern political ideals.
Further complicating the matter is the vast difference in how different residents perceive the black lives matter movement more generally, and the question of whether such a movement can be separated from its founding ideals. Whereas the slogan “black lives matter” encourages citizens to pursue justice for those minorities unjustly killed or marginalized, the formal organization Black Lives Matter (BLM) has its roots in anti-capitalist and black-separatist movements.
Key founders of the BLM are self-avowed radical queer Marxists, and the organization has come under increasing criticism in recent weeks as the public becomes more aware of the group’s stated goals outside of its eponymous slogan.
Specifically, the group has earned the ire of many working class Americans who disagree with the goals stated on the organization’s website, which include the abolition of the police, the disruption of the nuclear family, and the erosion of heteronormativity. Still others disagree with the BLM’s insistence that white supremacy is an existential threat to black people.
In East Greenwich, however, such concerns flow under the surface. There are, in fact, little to no complaints of such issues, and the community is both one of the most wealthy and whitest in the state.
The town’s drug program director, Bob Houghtaling, highlighted the fact that the youth of the community were largely driving the current movement and that the town should focus on listening to them and acknowledging the necessity of social justice in driving the history of the nation forward.
“They emanated from the grass roots. From people who have a passion for social justice,” Houghtaling said of Saturday’s protestors. “This is something that is emanating from a significant portion of our community and we have to look at some of the really deep root causes of social unrest and social challenges.”
The statues that adorned the historic Old Jail are now gone from sight. They are replicas, to be sure, carved from wood in 2016 to imitate those first crafted in the 1790s. According to the statement issued by the EGHPS, the white prisoner and the black prisoner together in chains signified the purpose of the jail to the largely illiterate public of the time, and the aspirational goal of equality of the law. It is perhaps strange then, that the most literate society in history cannot now derive their meaning, but rather advocates their destruction.
“We hope to continue this good work,” the EGHPS wrote of its mission to preserve the town’s past, “and welcome everyone to continue on our collective journey to make sense of, and reckon with, our shared history.”