Big statues honoring powerful men are all the rage these days. Literally. They’re being toppled and beheaded and thrown into rivers and slathered in rainbows of graffiti as symbols of racial injustice.
This reminded me of something Rochester abolitionist Sarah Blackall told Frederick Douglass in a letter in 1893. Her husband was traveling for work in the South and had run across a monument to Henry Clay in New Orleans.
Clay was a career politician from Kentucky in the first half of the 19th century. He was a statesman’s statesman: a House speaker, a senator, and secretary of state under John Quincy Adams. He architected big compromises to stave off civil war. Some of this revolved around the issue of slavery. Clay opposed it as a system and argued for gradual emancipation. However—before you get all ‘yay, Clay’—he still viewed slaves as legal property, and he owned slaves himself. (I know.)
When he was secretary of state and living in Decatur House in Washington, D.C., one of his slaves, Charlotte DuPuy, sued him in 1829 to win her freedom, saying her previous owner had promised her emancipation and that it should have carried over to Clay when he bought her.
While the suit was pending, Clay’s term ended and he returned to Kentucky, taking DuPuy’s husband and daughter with him. In the gray area between slavery and freedom, DuPuy stayed at Decatur House for a year and a half and worked for pay for Clay’s successor, Martin Van Buren, awaiting the outcome.
She lost. And if that weren’t bad enough, when she refused to move back to Kentucky (naturally, why would she after a taste of freedom?), Clay approved her removal to jail and then sent her to New Orleans to work for relatives. She didn’t see her family for another 11 years, when Clay granted her freedom.
In her letter to Frederick Douglass, Sarah paraphrased the inscription on the base of Clay’s memorial: “‘If I could be instrumental in eradicating the great stain, slavery, from the character of our country, I would not exchange the proud satisfaction which I should enjoy for all the triumphs ever decreed to the most successful (conquerors).’
“Perhaps you have seen the statue,” she wrote. “It struck me as being a strange sentiment for a slave owner.”
That was 127 years ago. I picture Sarah’s husband, Frank, standing at that statue, leaning in to read the inscription. I picture Douglass reading her words and shaking his head. He was well aware of Clay’s inconsistencies.
Public outcry over monuments and streets that honor white supremacy is nothing new in New Orleans, and three years ago the city removed several statues. Fast forward to last month when monument protests around the country were heating up. I did a quick scan online and didn't see any new action around the Clay memorial. But I checked again today and sure enough, the demand for its removal, along with others, has reached a crescendo.
Here's an idea: Maybe New Orleans should replace it with a tribute to Charlotte Dupuy, one of its own, who stood up to one of the most powerful men in the country to fight for the right to be free.