On the streets where I learned to drive in Concord, a quiet suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, I often broke the speed limit on Warren C. Coleman Boulevard. I never gave much thought to the name, and always figured he was a former mayor or governor of some renown with his own winding highway.
When curiosity got the better of me, I learned that Mr. Coleman was no politician. He was a serial entrepreneur born into slavery who eventually became the wealthiest African-American at the turn of the 20th century.
Coleman became a real estate magnate in Concord in the late 1890s, buying and renting land and launching a successful combination candy store and barbershop. He eventually raised capital from both the black elite and tobacco moguls across the state to launch his own cotton mill that would empower the black community.
His textile plant, the Coleman Manufacturing Company, was the first black-owned and operated textile plant in the entire United States and hired only black laborers. It became a celebrated enterprise that eventually faced bankruptcy in the midst of a financial panic and closed its doors in 1904.
There are no statues of Mr. Coleman in the state of North Carolina. And that is a shame. Indeed, there are very few statues of entrepreneurs at all, not to mention successful black entrepreneurs who made a difference through business.
In the current moment of revising our collective memorialization of past figures – mostly in the context of former Confederate generals and politicians – we need a new conversation about the kind of people we honor with public landmarks.
This is less a question about judging historical figures on modern virtues, in which likely all memorialized men would be “canceled” by the mob, than about who we choose to elevate in our public memory.
Especially in southern states, there is no doubt that there are many black icons who have been swept to the dustbins of history. But across the entire country, there is a serious lack of statues honoring industrious men and women who created greatness in the factory and storefront rather than government offices.
Entrepreneurs, inventors, and cultural icons have all left a significant mark on our development as a society, perhaps more than the statesman we currently celebrate.
What if we were to honor the risk-taking achievements of individuals who built and sold products, employed millions, and contributed to the wealth and success of the American experiment?
Would a statue of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, whose products now enrich the lives of billions of people, or Norman Borlaug, the agronomist who championed genetically-modified foods to feed billions, really be more outlandish than a politician or general who was popular in their time?
Over the decades, debates have raged about the statues of Robert E. Lee, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, some of the nation’s most prominent. This is somewhat ironic for Jefferson, given he was himself no fan of statuary of contemporary political figures, which he considered “trappings of monarchy”.
Beyond the Founding Fathers, the political and military monopoly of statured figures is very real. Perhaps that’s because politicians are often the ones who sanction the dedications.
In Richmond, visitors can gaze at a statue of Harry Flood Byrd, the former Democratic governor and segregationist, not to mention the many statues and monuments of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis littered across the south. Even Richard Byrd, the former Democratic U.S. Senator, segregationist, and Ku Klux Klan leader has his statue in the U.S. Capitol.
In Vienna, Austria, where I currently live, one cannot pass a single block without some monument or building donning the name of a politician of yesteryear, who used public funds to build social housing, a fountain, or left some impression on political life.
If at present we glorify the actions of men and women who waged politics, we should be even more driven to erect monuments and statues to figures who have been the key inventors and innovators that actually created our modern world outside legislative bodies.
Where are the statues to great figures such as oil baron John D. Rockefeller, the Swiss-American Louis Chevrolet, founder of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, and famed circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum?
Better yet, what about a public memorial to Austrian-born American actress Hedy Lamarr, who co-invented the frequency-hopping spectrum signal during World War II that we now use in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies?
There are, no doubt, a plethora of achievements we could celebrate on our public squares. Instead of judging historical political figures with a modern lens and planning the next monument decapitation based on that, what if we changed our perception of who we should immortalize in the first place?