Feb 3, 2022
Michigan senators seek replacement of Lewis Cass statue, suggesting longtime Detroit mayor Coleman Young
A statue of Coleman Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor, would replace the full-length marble statue of Lewis Cass in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall under a proposal put forth by Michigan Senate Democrats.
The National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C. includes statues of two notable figures from each state placed throughout the U.S. Capitol. Historically, Michigan has had a Republican and a Democrat represented in the Statuary Hall. In 2013, Rosa Parks, who lived in Detroit for decades, became the first Black person to have a full-length statue in Statuary Hall, but that statue was authorized by Congress, not by a particular state.
In 2011, when Republicans opted to swap out a statue of Republican Zachariah Chandler — a former U.S. Senator and staunch abolitionist — with a bronze statue of President Gerald Ford. Chandler’s statue now stands in the atrium of Constitution Hall in Lansing.
Cass, who served as Michigan’s second territorial governor from 1813-1831 and was the Democratic nominee in the 1848 presidential election, has been one of the two statues representing figures from Michigan since 1889, according to the Architect of the Capitol website.
Cass was an influential figure in Michigan’s path to statehood and later served as a U.S. Senator and as a cabinet member for Presidents Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan.
But he was also a leading advocate for allowing white residents of individual U.S. territories to decide whether slavery should be abolished, and he was recorded selling a woman he enslaved named Sally to a member of the Macomb family in 1818 by his biographer. As Jackson’s Secretary of War, he also implemented policies that forcibly removed Native Americans from their lands to locations further west.
“What we’re talking about is removing a statue of a man who ran the efforts that resulted in the Trail of Tears,” said state Sen. Adam Hollier, the Detroit Democrat leading the effort to replace the statue.
Replacing the Cass statue with the likeness of Young would not only represent the historic contributions of Michigan’s Black leaders, but also “signals to Native communities and sovereign nations all across the country...that it does not make sense for Michigan to elevate and continue to revere someone who supervised the forced march of entire peoples,” Hollier continued.
Prior to his 20-year tenure as mayor of Detroit, Young served in the military and was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, and also served in the Michigan Senate.
As mayor, he is known for his work on integrating the city of Detroit’s police force, overseeing large-scale downtown developments, paying down city debt and getting a General Motors plant in the city, although his decisions, his approach and associations with people who served time for corruption often courted controversy.
Hollier said he hoped elevating Young with a statue in Washington, D.C. would highlight his lasting legacy and show that Young “is someone that people broadly can say the work that they did was impactful and resonated well beyond his time and his generation.”
Several prominent Detroit officials are backing the effort, including current Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who during a press conference this week said Young embodies the state’s values far better than Cass.
“There’s a lot of major figures who would better represent what we stand for, but there is no one who meant more for progress than Mayor Coleman Young,” Duggan said. “The longer I am in this job, the deeper appreciation I have for how visionary Mayor Young was.”
An overwhelming majority of the people currently represented in the Statuary Hall collection were white and male, and several prominent Confederates like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee currently have statues there. Young would be the first Black man to be featured in the collection if the Legislature approves the effort.
A resolution to start the process was referred to the Senate Government Operations Committee and has the support of the entire Senate Democratic caucus. Democratic members of Michigan’s Congressional delegation have previously encouraged state lawmakers to replace the Cass statue.
But even if approved, it will likely be a while before visitors to the Statuary Hall would see a new representative from Michigan. Supporters would have to raise enough private donations and hire an artist to complete the project, meaning it could be years before a replacement for Cass is ready.