Sunday, June 14, 2020

Eugene's Pioneer Mother Statue, Burt Brown Barker, and the Problem of Genealogy

May 7th, 1932
The news last night from Eugene that protesters had toppled two Pioneer monuments on campus was unsurprising and also distressing. One of the statues has a Salem connection, it turns out.

On the toppling, UO gave a generally nuanced statement, albeit one certain to be dissatisfying to the protesters:
These are obviously turbulent times. While we support peaceful protest and vigorous expression of ideas, we do not condone acts of vandalism. Our country, state and campus are coming to terms with historic and pervasive racism that we must address, but it is unfortunate that someone chose to deface and tear down these statues. Decisions about the future of the Pioneer statues and other monuments should be made by the campus community through an inclusive and deliberative process, not a unilateral act of destruction. Just this week, President Michael Schill recommended that the Board of Trustees dename Deady Hall and announced to the University Senate that he was asking a campus committee to look at whether statues or monuments on campus, including two Pioneer statues, should be removed. The university will put the statues in safe storage and allow that process to play out.
The problem, which we see most directly on police brutality, is that civility has been of limited utility. The only way sometimes to get the powers to pay attention is to have a tantrum. This is a structural problem in the way formal process operates. Colin Kaepernick took a knee, and look how far it got him. Words and reason alone ought to be sufficient, but too often they are not. This is public process and civility as kitty litter: Attract dissent and critique, neutralize it, and clump it for easy disposal.

Putting the statues in storage for an analysis, debate, and negotiation is the right thing. They are not so heinous they should be destroyed or defaced, but they require something more like a museum setting, since they are monuments to a period and cultural order we no longer uncritically celebrate. Their display is certain to require more context and analysis. They don't work as bare proclamation and celebration any more.

The statue in 2007 - via wikipedia
The donor of the second statue in Eugene, the Pioneer Mother, grew up here and retained an interest in Salem history. Burt Brown Barker knew Bert Hoover as a youth. Later he was vice-president at University of Oregon.

Editorial, April 23rd, 1932
In fact, the Pioneer Mother was a specific homage to his mother and grandmothers.

May 7th, 1932
We also know Brown Barker because he was an early advocate for preserving the Methodist Parsonage, now at the Mill.
As early as 1935, Burt Brown Barker began advocating for the preservation of the Parsonage. In a letter to Bruce R. Baxter, then president of Willamette University, he wrote: “I venture to affirm that there is no building standing in the Pacific Northwest with the historical significance of this one and it would be too bad to have it lost simply because at the present time it happens to have some old and unattractive washings on the porch.”
He had owned it and perhaps even lived in it for a while, so his attachment was not wholly impartial.

He also advocated for Thomas Cox's memory as the first merchant here.* Brown Barker was a significant figure in the mid-century understanding of Salem history.**

On the first marker for Thomas Cox
October 9th, 1931
In advocating as public history for his mother, Elvira Brown Barker, and great-grandfather, Thomas Cox, he was also memorializing family history. Advocacy for the Parsonage was also personal.

Articles by Burt Brown Barker, Elizabeth Esson Brown,
Clark Moor Will, and Mathilda Siegmund-Jones
are about family history - via The Mill
The mixing of public and family history is often tricky. As a predecessor to the Willamette Heritage Center, the Marion County Historical Society was founded by many descendants of early settlers. They essays they published are written by the same descendants. Too often the only people who care about local history are old-time family. Lots of people don't care about history, and this small group does, and it's important to recognize the care and attention. On the one hand links to family give direct and important access to family memory. But on the other hand, family memory is very often scrubbed and cleaned, offering idealized versions of what is messy and difficult, sometimes even criminal or immoral. Individual stories also sometimes obscure the way systems operate, especially as we like to celebrate exceptional people, not the ordinary mass of everyday people who would not escape from norms and institutional constraints. Even with good intentions, the family history of settlers is one-sided, missing out on Indigenous history. For museums and other history institutions, fund-raising depends also on not alienating the family members, and so there can be a systemic bias against truth-telling when the truth is uncomfortable. On this understanding of history, "our heritage" is necessarily wonderful, a treasure, and critical counter-narratives struggle against the Panglossian temperament. When family memory is the primary source for data, a critical history is very difficult, perhaps even impossible.

Our current historical understanding of Salem is too dependent on stories that trade on family history as public history, either directly or in an extended metaphorical sense. As Jason Lee and Asahel Bush are considered "fathers" of Salem and of Oregon, we protect them more than a little as "family," less willing to look critically at them. We see this over and over, not just with Lee and Bush.

We should pay attention to these debates in Eugene, not because they land on the best solutions - the vandalism is unquestionably not best - but because we will face the same debates here in our own public art and public history. Hopefully we can avoid the vandalism, but we will have to engage many of the same criticisms. Our history telling needs to be updated and told with a wider lens, and our Pioneer monuments are sometimes problematic and merit reassessment also.

* Here is a close up of a plaque, perhaps the one from 1931, and an image of its removal, featuring Ed Ritter, whose son John has done some amusing history talks and walks, and written about the history of the Prison.
** See this 1982 Masters Thesis, "Burt Brown Barker, his role in historic preservation in Oregon."
See also here, "Guidance of Youth and the Ideology of Pioneer Mother Monuments."

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