DETROIT – The world is taking another look at who is being honored with statues in their communities -- and the history behind those decisions.
Statues and monuments have long been a controversial topic in the U.S., especially Confederate monuments in the South. In recent weeks, protests against racism have resulted in the toppling or removal of several monuments around the world.
In 2020, in Bristol, England, demonstrators toppled a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the harbor. The New Zealand city of Hamilton removed a bronze statue of the British naval officer for whom it is named — a man who is accused of killing indigenous Maori people in the 1860s.
In Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan ordered the city’s Christopher Columbus bust to be removed. It was installed more than 100 years ago.
In the U.S., the 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his neck, led to an all-out effort to remove symbols of the Confederacy and slavery. Several statues of Confederate army leaders have been removed or vandalized, including that of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee. Around the world, historical figures are being re-examined.
Given all of the attention around statues, let’s take a look at statues around Detroit -- and the stories behind the people and faces we etch into history.
Statues and monuments of Detroit
Pretty sure you know who this is: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, who led the country through the American Civil War and abolished slavery.
Lincoln has countless monuments around the country. This one, in Detroit, was created in 1918 by Gutzon Borglum and was gifted to the Detroit Institute of Arts. It sits near behind the Michigan Labor Legacy Monument in Hart Plaza, next to the UAW-Ford National Programs Center.
There’s another statue of Honest Abe at the Skillman branch of the Detroit Public Library.
You know the name Macomb if you’re from Michigan or, more specifically, Macomb County.
Major General Alexander Macomb was born in Detroit in 1782, but left Michigan for school, moving to New York. The Macomb family was a prominent trading family in the Detroit area at the time, but Alexander left for a military career.
Macomb made his name for leading a victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh in the War of 1812. The action in Plattsburgh earned him a brevet major general rank and a gold medal from Congress.
Macomb is recognized by a Michigan Historical Marker installed at the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Macomb Street in Mount Clemens, Michigan. Here’s what it reads:
University of Michigan professor Tiya Miles, in a 2017 op-ed in the New York Times, highlighted some of the racist history with the Macomb family:
This statue, at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue, was sculpted by Adolph Alexander Weinman and was erected in 1906.
Alpheus Starkey Williams
If you’ve ever wandered around Belle Isle, you’ve likely come across Alpheus Starkey Williams on his horse.
Williams was actually born in Connecticut, back in 1810. After graduating from Yale, studying law and traveling the U.S. and Europe, in 1836, he moved to Detroit.
Nobody really knows why. But he never left. He worked as a lawyer, and started a family. Before the Civil War started, he served as a probate judge of Wayne County, president of a bank, owner of the Detroit Advertiser, postmaster of Detroit, and member of the Board of Education, according to a biography.
Williams served in the Patriot War, fought as a general in the Civil War and served in the Mexican War. Read more about his war history here.
After leaving service, Williams ran for Michigan governor in 1870, but lost. He was elected to Congress in 1875. He died after suffering a stroke in the U.S. Capitol Building in 1878. The statue on Belle Isle was unveiled in 1921.
Wayne is a huge name in Metro Detroit, with Wayne County, Wayne State University, Historic Fort Wayne and the city of Wayne. And for good reason.
Anthony Wayne was a decorated Army general and statesman who stood out during the Revolutionary War, especially in the Midwest. Wayne, who was known by his nickname “mad Anthony”, was famous for his military exploits and courage in the field of battle while fighting against the British for American Independence.
The Northwest Territory Act of 1787 claimed the area (present day Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) for America, but the British refused to comply. Wayne was charged with leading the fight by President George Washington.
Wayne led troops to decisive victories, leading up to the peaceful takeover from the British in Detroit in 1796, claiming Detroit as an American city for the first time. Detroit had been a French territory until 1760, when British took control -- holding control until Wayne arrived. He died shortly after.
Wayne County was established in 1796 and was the sixth county formed in the Northwest Territory. There are 15 counties across the United States named after Anthony Wayne.
Creators of the Batman comics said Bruce Wayne’s name is the combination of Robert Bruce, a Scottish patriot -- and Anthony Wayne. Anthony Wayne is also depicted as an 18th century ancestor of Bruce Wayne.
Wayne, like many Revolutionary War generals, condoned slavery and owned numerous slaves that he used to work on a rice plantation in Georgia.
The Anthony Wayne monument is on the campus of Wayne State University in Gullen Mall. It was installed in 1969.
Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac
Cadillac is a popular name in Detroit and Michigan, and that’s due to Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit.
Cadillac founded Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (which became the city of Detroit) in 1701 and was commandant of the fort until 1710. He was named the governor of Louisiana from 1710 to about 1717.
History has not been so kind for Cadillac, as many historians, in retrospect, say he wasn’t a very good person. According to the Canadian Museum of History, he grabbed the attention of people because of his “nasty behavior," and had an “evil mind.” Rumors were spreading about him being kicked out of France for his behavior.
Sure he founded Detroit, but he was a jerk and was greedy. It was Father Gabriel Richard, a former U.S. representative and founder of University of Michigan, who dedicated most of his time building and serving the city of Detroit.
“The Landing of Cadillac," as seen in the photo above, was erected in Hart Plaza in 2001. The historic marker next to it reads:
Cadillac has other monuments in Detroit, including his “Fantastic Four" statue, which includes him along side Father Jacques Marquette, Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle and Father Gabriel Richard, now located on Wayne State University’s campus.
He’s also part of another group constructed on the Michigan Avenue entrance facade of the Book Cadillac Hotel, along with General Anthony Wayne, Chief Pontiac and Robert Navarre.
There’s a lot more to Cadillac’s story after leaving Detroit. Read about it here.
Casimir Pulaski has no real connection to Detroit, but is recognized as one of the biggest heroes of the American Revolutionary War -- and he’s Polish. He’s been called “the father of the American cavalry."
Pulaski has hundreds of monuments dedicated to him around the country, and is one of just a handful of people in history to have received an honorary American citizenship.
Pulaski was killed in battle in 1779, at age 34. He is remembered as a hero who fought for independence and freedom in the U.S. and in Poland.
In 2019, a film released made a case that Pulaski was intersex after an examination of his suspected remains showed female characteristics.
The inscription on the Detroit statue, erected in 1966 at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue, across from Alexander Macomb, reads, in part: “This monument to General Casimir Pulaski, who on Oct. 11, 1779 gave his life at Savannah, Georgia, in the cause of America independence, is a gift to the city of Detroit from the Central Citizens Committee in behalf of 400,000 Americans of Polish descent living in the Detroit Metropolitan Area.”
Well, you knew this was coming. The infamous Christopher Columbus bust in Downtown Detroit.
Columbus has become a controversial subject in recent decades. This bust has been the target of vandals for years. In fact, Detroit no longer even celebrates Columbus Day, but instead, Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
So what did Columbus really do? He wasn’t the first to discover the New World, the term generally used to refer to the modern-day Americas. Indigenous people had been living there for centuries by the time Columbus arrived in 1492.
He wasn’t the first European in the New World, either. Leif Eriksson and the Vikings beat him to it five centuries earlier. While many schoolchildren learn about the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, less appealing details of Columbus’ journeys include the enslavement of Native Americans and the spread of deadly diseases.
The indigenous societies of the Americas "were decimated by exposure to Old World diseases, crumbling under the weight of epidemic," historian David M. Perry wrote.
"Columbus didn't know that his voyage would spread diseases across the continents, of course, but disease wasn't the only problem. ... He also took slaves for display back home and to work in his conquered lands."
But there’s no doubt that Columbus’ voyages “had an undeniable historical impact, sparking the great age of Atlantic exploration, trade and eventually colonization by Europeans,” Perry wrote.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ordered the bust to be removed on Monday, June 15, amid ongoing protests against racism in the city.
The bust sat at the intersection of East Jefferson Avenue and Randolph Street, although, according to Historic Detroit, the bust was originally on the northern end of Washington Boulevard at Park Avenue and was originally dedicated in 1910. It was moved to its present day location and restored in 1987.
This statue of Father Clement Kern is actually guarded by a fence in Detroit’s Corktown. It depicts Kern preaching to six empty benches, or perhaps, pews.
Here’s some history on Kern from Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library:
Here’s a New York Times article on his death back in 1983. The statue is at the corner of Trumbull Avenue and Bagley. It was commissioned by the Corktown Non-profit Housing and Development Corporation and erected in 1985.
Father Gabriel Richard (pronounced rish-ARD) is really one of Detroit’s founding fathers.
Richard was a co-founder of the University of Michigan, which started in Detroit in 1817. He was a pastor for 30 years at the historic Ste. Anne de Detroit.
During Detroit’s Great Fire of 1805, he exclaimed: “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” Those words are still part of the seal of the City of Detroit today.
In 1809, Richard bought Detroit’s first printing press. In 1823, he was elected as a territorial delegate to Congress. During his time in office, Richard presented 16 petitions.
In 1824, he presented a plan to build a long road between Detroit and Chicago -- which you may know as Michigan Avenue.
Read more about Father Gabriel Richard’s history here from U-M.
The statue above is located on Wayne State University’s campus, in Gullen Mall. Another statue of Richard lives at Gabriel Richard Park at East Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard.
A newcomer on the political scene, introducing, George Washington. Heard of him?
Washington was the first president of the United States, a decorated general, founding father and statesmen. Obviously, there are hundreds of Washington monuments around the country.
Washington owned slaves. He became a slave owner at the age of 11 and purchased at least eight more slaves as a young adult. He reportedly struggled with the institution of slavery and freed all of his slaves at the end of his life, in 1799. Read more about this here.
This George Washington statue is located in front of the Mariner’s Church on the Detroit Riverfront along Jefferson Avenue and was erected in 1959, created by master mason Donald De Lue.
This statue of Gomidas Vartabed commemorates the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
The statue is located on Jefferson Avenue, adjacent to Hart Plaza and TCF Center. It was erected in 1980 and designed by Arto Chakmakjian.
The inscription reads: “We Detroit Armenians dedicate this monument to the memory of our 1,500,000 Armenian martyrs massacred during the 1915 Genocide.”
Gomidas Vartabed (Komitas Vardapet) was an Armenian priest, composer and musicologist. Read more about his life here.
One of the better known statues in Downtown Detroit, former Detroit mayor and Michigan governor Hazen Pingree sits in a chair, looking over the city he helped mold.
Pingree is considered one of the most legendary mayors of Detroit, although he wasn’t your tradition politician. He started a shoe store in 1866, and his company became the largest shoe manufacturers in the American West.
Pingree was not politically active, but his friends in the Republican party nominated him for mayor in 1889. He won, of course.
Pingree was known for battling corruption and for fighting on behalf of the poor. He was known for creating “potato patches” and vegetable gardens to help feed families during the 1893 Depression.
In 1896, while he was still serving as mayor, he was elected as Governor of Michigan. He tried to hold both offices, but when forced to choose he resigned as mayor and moved to Lansing. He served two terms, leaving office in 1900.
The monument dedicated to Pingree, on West Adams Street and Woodward Avenue, was unveiled in 1904, and was created by sculptor Rudolph Schwarz. Honestly, there’s so much more to Pingree and we can’t possibly do it justice. Check out Historic Detroit for much more detail.
Father Jacques Marquette, as seen above in this statue in Wayne State’s Gullen Mall, was a French explorer who, with fur trader Louis Joliet, introduced the first non Native-American settlements to North America.
Here’s more background on Marquette from the Wisconsin Historical Society:
In two canoes paddled by five voyageurs, Marquette and Joliet left St. Ignace, at the head of Lake Michigan, on May 17, 1673. They crossed Wisconsin between June 1 and June 17, then followed the Mississippi River hundreds of miles south to Arkansas.
On July 16, near the mouth of the Arkansas River across from modern Rosedale, Mississippi, they turned around. They had gone far enough to confirm that the Mississippi drained into the Gulf of Mexico but not so far that they would be captured by the Spanish. On Sept. 30, 1673, they arrived at St. Francis Xavier Mission at modern DePere, Wisconsin.
Marquette and Jolliet did not discover the Mississippi. Indians had been using it for thousands of years, and Spanish explorer Hernan De Soto had crossed it more than a century before them. They did confirm, however, that it was possible to travel from the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico by water, that the native peoples who lived along the route were generally friendly, and that the natural resources of the lands in between were extraordinary.
Equipped with this information, French officials led by the explorer LaSalle would erect a 4,000-mile network of trading posts to systematically exploit those riches over the next century and a half.
The city of Marquette, Michigan is named after him, along with Marquette University in Milwaukee.
James L. Brady
James L. Brady (no relation to Tom) is the founder of the Old Newsboys’ Goodfellows Fund.
Brady was born poor in 1878, but eventually became a city tax collector, where he learned of the struggles Detroiters were experiencing.
To help improve the welfare of children in the city, Brady came up with the idea to have former newsboys sell newspapers at an inflated cost during the holiday season, with the intent of using the extra money to purchase food, clothing and Christmas toys for the children. This is still a thing today.
Brady died at the young age of 47. His statue, on Belle Isle, was unveiled in 1928.
James Scott may just be the most interesting of statues in Detroit -- because he had it built for himself.
Scott was a real estate developer who left his estate ($600,000) to fund the building of a fountain and statue dedicated to himself on Belle Isle -- the James Scott Memorial Fountain -- the crown jewel of Belle Isle.
Scott himself has a complicated reputation in history, some describing him as a troubled socialite and playboy, while some just say he liked to gamble and use his money for some, well, very interesting things, like the time he built a mansion he never meant to occupy just to devalue the neighbor’s lot.
In fact, the Belle Isle Conservancy says legend has it that James Scott was a scoundrel of his day, and the statue of himself that he demanded was strategically placed so that the spray of the fountain would hit him in the face.
Either way, you can’t argue that the fountain is beautiful. Herbert Adams was the sculptor and Cass Gilbert the architect.
It was completed in 1923 and dedicated on May 31, 1925. Scott is seated in a chair looking over the Scott Fountain facing the city.
Johann Friedrich von Schiller
Although he has no connection to the Detroit area, Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller was best known for his immense influence on German literature, especially in stage production.
Schiller is sometimes referred to as the German Shakespeare; his works are still among the most widely produced German plays both in Germany and internationally.
The Detroit statue, on Belle Isle, was erected in 1907 by a group of German Americans in Detroit. The inscription, in German, roughly translates to: “We want to be a united people of brothers in no need of separation and danger.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr., of course, is the biggest icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and has a strong connection to Detroit.
Although one thing Dr. King is known for is his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in August of 1963, he lead a march in Detroit two months prior.
The June 1963 march in Detroit was, at the time, the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history, with 125,000 marching down Woodward Avenue. (Read more about the march here).
The aluminum bust of Dr. King was created in 1982 by Oscar Graves. It’s located in MLK Memorial Park on West Grand Boulevard and Rosa Parks Boulevard.
Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument
If you’ve been down to Campus Martius, you’ve likely seen this masterful monument shining through the trees and over the fountain.
The Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument honors the 90,000 Michigan troops who fought for the Union in the Civil War, as well as the 14,823 who did not return home from battle. It was built in 1867 by Randolph Rogers, a renowned sculptor of numerous other Civil War monuments. Here’s more background on what’s included from Detroit Historical Society:
“The monument is composed of four tiers with unique ornamentation. The lower sections feature four eagles with raised wings. Next, the midsections are topped by four male figures that represent the four branches of the United States Army: Navy, Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery. Above these male figures are four female figures that were added to the monument in 1881, which represent Victory, History, Emancipation and Union. Finally, the top of the monument is home to 11-foot heroic Native American warrior representation of “Michigan,” who holds a sword in her right hand and raises a shield in her left signaling that she is ready for battle. Additionally, the monument includes four plaques containing bas-reliefs of the Union leaders Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, and David Farragut.”
The monument was actually moved 125 feet from its original location after the completion of the 2005 renovation of Campus Martius Park.
Robert Burns has no clear connection to Detroit, but he is one of the most famous poets, lyricists and writers of his time.
Burns, who was born in Scotland, was regarded as one of the leading pioneers of the Romantic Movement, an artistic push that originated in Europe in the 18th century, which emphasized emotion and individualism.
The Detroit statue, located in Cass Park near the Masonic Temple, was built with donations from English immigrants in the area.
It was created by sculptor George A. Lawson in 1891 and was erected in Cass Park in 1921.
Russell A. Alger
Russell Alexander Alger was the 20th governor of Michigan, serving from 1885 to 1887.
Alger also served as a U.S. Senator, from 1902 to 1907, and the U.S. Secretary of War under President William McKinley from 1897 to 1899.
Just before the Civil War, Alger, who was born in Ohio, moved to Grand Rapids, where he married his wife and started a family. He enlisted in the Union Army and eventually became a major general by the time he retired.
After the war, he moved to Detroit, where he started a hugely successful logging business, among other ventures, before beginning his career in politics.
The Russell Alger Memorial Fountain is the centerpiece to Grand Circus Park and was a collaboration between sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon. It was erected in 1921. The woman holding a sword and shield is the “bronze personification of the state of Michigan,” according to Historic Detroit.
Spirit of Detroit
The Spirit of Detroit statue is the most iconic in the city.
The iconic statue was first envisioned by sculptor Marshall Fredericks, who was commissioned by the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority.
Work on the statue began in 1955 when a cast was made across the pond in Norway. After the cast for the statue was constructed, artists working with Fredericks carefully applied acid to the surface of the bronze cast which oxidized the statue, turning it the greenish color that we all see today.
Read more history on the statue here.
Stevens T. Mason
Stevens T. Mason, otherwise known as, “the boy governor.”
Mason was the first governor of the great state of Michigan, and to this day, is the youngest governor in U.S. history, taking office at age 24.
Stevens was appointed Secretary of the Michigan Territory in 1831 at the age of 19 -- he couldn’t even vote yet. But Stevens led the charge for Michigan to gain its statehood.
In October 1835, Michigan voters approved a state constitution, however, Michigan was not admitted to the Union until January 26, 1837, when a boundary dispute with Ohio was finally settled.
Andrzej Tadeusz Bonaventura Kościuszko, more commonly known as Thaddeus Kościuszko, was a Polish general, military engineer, and revolutionary. He fought in the American Revolutionary War, as well as an uprising in his home country.
In his will, Kościuszko ordered that the American estate he received as a payment for his military service was to be sold and the profits from the sale were to be used to help the slaves from his estate start new lives. His will was never properly executed.
Kościuszko has no obvious connection to the Detroit area, but like many statues in the city, it was a gift from local immigrants. The statue is a recreation of a Polish monument that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940. The Detroit replica was a gift fro the people in Krakow to Detroit in 1978.
The statue located at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Third Street near MGM Casino.
Underground Railroad: Gateway to Freedom
This monument on the Detroit Riverfront commemorates the city’s important tole in the Underground Railroad system, a network built to help slaves reach freedom.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 said that even if slaves arrived in free states in the North, they could be still captured and sent back to their slave masters. However, Canada, just across the Detroit River prohibited slavery, offering slaves full liberation and safety. So, it makes sense that Detroit would play a huge part in the Underground Railroad.
Detroit, whose code name was “Midnight,” was an extremely important stop on the Underground Railroad. It’s proximity to Canada was ideal for fugitive slaves making their last leap for freedom, over to Windsor.
According to the Detroit Historical Society, there are at least seven known paths that led slaves from various points in Michigan to the Canadian shore, and it is estimated that 200 Underground Railroad stops existed throughout Michigan between the 1820s and 1865.
The memorial monument was dedicated in 2001 and was created by sculptor Ed Dwight.
William C. Maybury
William Cotter Maybury, another one of Detroit’s most famous mayors, is responsible for modernizing parts of Detroit’s infrastructure.
After serving as Detroit City Attorney from 1876 to 1880, Maybury was elected to Congress, representing Michigan’s 1st District from 1883 to 1887. During this time, he sponsored bills to build the Belle Isle Bridge and the First Federal building in Detroit.
In 1897, when Mayor Hazen Pingree resigned to become Governor of Michigan, Maybury was elected to finish the term. The following November, he was re-elected and served as Mayor of Detroit from 1897 to 1905.
During this time, he was credited for expanding the municipal water and sewage programs, public lighting, paving of street and sidewalks, expansion of public parks, playgrounds and building the Belle Isle Aquarium.
This massive statue of Maybury was unveiled in 1912 at the corner of Woodward Avenue and East Adams Street, across from Hazen Pingree. It was created by sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman.
William G. Milliken was the longest serving governor in Michigan history.
Milliken, who died in 2019, served in the Michigan Senate from 1961 to 1964 and was Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor from 1965 to 1969. He became governor of Michigan in 1969 after Governor George Romney resigned to assume a cabinet appointment in the Nixon administration.
Milliken won the general election in 1970 and subsequent elections in 1974 and 1978.
As governor, Milliken established a legacy of conservation and environmental protection. Michigan voters passed the bottle deposit bill in 1976, diverting from landfills an estimated 600,000 tons of container refuse annually. In 1977, Milliken won limits on phosphates used in laundry detergents, an action that contributed significantly to Lake Erie’s recovery.
In 1979, the state adopted the Wetlands Protection Act, an important step in protecting areas that strain pollutants from water, control runoff sediments, store floodwaters and provide habitat for fish, amphibians and waterfowl.
Milliken has multiple memorials on the Detroit Riverfront as a part of Milliken State Park, which includes a scaled down replica of the recently renovated lighthouse at Tawas Point State Park. The second phase of the Milliken State Park opened on December 1, 2009 and includes a wetlands demonstration area which shows how wetlands act as nature’s water filtration system, and a bust of Milliken holding binoculars.
There are obviously many more monuments in Detroit, some inside buildings and some pre-dating the Revolutionary War. Nicolaus Copernicus, for instance, outside the Detroit Public Library on Woodward Avenue, or Joe Louis, inside TCF Center. But we hope this gives some historical context to the statues you see outside, around the city.
Special thanks to Detroit Historical Society, Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library, National Register of Historic Places, Dan Austin’s Historic Detroit and Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection. Without these important institutions and people collecting our history, we’d have nothing to tell you about.