OKLAHOMA CITY – Theodore Roosevelt. Robert E. Lee. Frederick Douglass. Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What do those famous men of American history have in common? All of them were featured as statues and monuments targeted earlier this summer by rioters and vandals who have no love of American history, warts and all.
Defaced, torn down or thrown into rivers, in the rage-filled weeks after the death of Black man George Floyd, protesters wanted to be heard and targeted the obelisks and monuments, claiming the people featured, from their perspective were the embodiments of racism and all that is wrong with America and not worthy of display or veneration.
This, regardless of whether the statues were of former slave owners or civil rights leaders, many were taken down, some spirited away or hidden in government warehouses, while those in charge decided what to do with them.
What to do with the statues and monuments? The question led to an idea about preservation.
A solution began to be crafted. A small-but-serious effort has taken root here in Oklahoma by lovers of America and our history. This effort, still very much in its earliest stages, was to provide a place of sanctuary for the discarded and unwanted historical statues of our remarkable country.
A planned park called “Patriot Park” would someday display all of the statues and monuments in one location so as to continue to inform and educate generations of visitors about the patriotic men and women of our country. A state senator, a noted Oklahoma historian, wealthy landowners and people who don’t want our history besmirched and destroyed, have been quietly banding together to see this project through.
And while this Patriot Park project has just taken seed and over 60 acres of land has been set aside along State Highway 81 in southern Garfield County, between Enid and Hennessey near Waukomis, to house the wide-sweeping park. The project is now seeking statues and monuments from around the U.S. to find a welcome home under the wide Oklahoma sky.
Talking recently to Waukomis, Oklahoma-based writer and historian John J. Dwyer, who wrote 2016’s The Oklahomans: The Story and Its People, is involved with the Patriot Park project through the Red River Institute of History, a nonprofit that looks to highlight the history of Oklahoma, Texas and the Southwest.
Dwyer, a native of Duncan, said that while he was appalled at the violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death, seeing statues and monuments of historical American figures torn down broke his heart. He knew there was a solution.
Reaching out to State Sen. Casey Murdock, a Panhandle Republican based in the Cimarron County community of Felt, whose senate district ends at the western boundary of Garfield County, Dwyer met with the senator at Cactus Jack’s in Guymon to brainstorm. This led to the Patriot Park project, following interest and support of Waukomis ranching family the Andersons – Richard and Moe – who offered to donate the acreage for the park once statues and monuments began making their way to Oklahoma.
“If you don’t want your monuments, we’ll take them,” Dwyer said.
In late June Sen. Murdock received media attention by making his desire known that statues and monuments that are unwanted elsewhere are certainly welcome here in Oklahoma. And while the political currents over race in America were at a boiling point, this was not an issue of race but one of historical preservation.
“How can we improve if we have nothing to measure against?” Murdock told Oklahoma City news station KWTV News channel 9 in late June. “Erasing the negative parts of our history doesn’t make it go away, removing the statues doesn’t make racism go away.”
When asked if he had been approached about statues being sent to Patriot Park, Murdock said that two statues have been offered so far, both from Texas.
One of the statues being considered is of Joseph D. Sayers, who served as the 22nd Governor of Texas from 1899 to 1903. His statue is in Bastrop, where he lived in the early 20th century.
During his term as governor, Sayers, a well-respected Democrat, and leader had to deal with the impact of the Great Storm of 1900, a devastating hurricane that destroyed Galveston and killed thousands of people.
According to the Waco Tribune-Herald, Sayers “immediately dispatched food, medicine and state personnel to the devastated city to help survivors in the face of impending starvation, disease and riots.” His actions helped many and would later play a major role in his re-election. Sayers was also elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and also served in the Texas Senate and was a lieutenant governor. Earlier in his life he served in the 5th Texas Regiment of the Confederate States’ Army. He was injured in a battle in Louisiana.
“It’s still a part of history,” Murdock said of the Sayers statue. “We want to preserve it.”
Murdock had wanted to salvage any statues or monuments tossed in lakes and rivers around the country by Antifa and others. But that would be too cost prohibitive. Still, if some want the statues sent here, the folks behind Patriot Park are only too happy to oblige.
“That way, 100 years from now, the statues will still be there, and people can learn about who they were and why they were removed and ended up here,” Murdock said.
Efforts to preserve some monuments have succeeded, albeit not always in the way preservationists and historians would prefer. For instance, earlier this month, The Washington Post wrote about a story where an obelisk commemorating the spot where Union and Confederate forces first clashed on land, in 1861, in Fairfax County, Virginia, was considered offensive enough to be removed by county officials. While some called the effort “Orwellian,” the obelisk will be taken over by an historical group nearby and not simply destroyed or locked away.
Markers like the one in Virginia are exactly the sort of monuments that Murdock and Dwyer are trying to give a new home. An effort to save a statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt did not take place, even though he tried. But that is because the Roosevelt statue ended up being saved in the former president’s native New York.
Meanwhile, Dwyer said he has spoken to Dr. Bob Blackburn with the Oklahoma Historical Society and he is said to be behind the Patriot Park preservation efforts.
Dwyer said that when he talked to Richard Anderson about the monuments that keep getting torn down, he told him that he wanted to bring them to Oklahoma.
“(Anderson) said ‘I have 60 acres I can donate’ for the park. It’s property right on Highway 81. Sixty beautiful acres that front the highway and is accessible. And yet it’s remote enough that it would be protected,’” Dwyer said. “Richard told us that if we can get enough statues together, say six to 10 statues, then he will give us the land. The plan would be to deed the land to the Red River Institute of History.”
Dwyer wryly noted that while statues of Lincoln are torn down or defaced, the statue of Communist leader V.I. Lenin remains untouched in the city of Portland, Oregon.
Continuing, the historian and writer said that the forces behind recent statue and monument removals and desecrations are trying more than to rewrite American history. Rather, “they are about rewriting our country.”
The protesters and anarchists are “not fans of our country, our Constitution, our flag.” But, he added, that the United States has come a long way in his two-plus centuries of history and that people from around the world still want to come here, despite the mistakes of the past.
“The big picture for us is that we want this to be a monument part where any American would be inspired to walk in. You could have Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass side by side,” Dwyer said. “It would be an inspiring place and an educational place, a place where you could walk up to a statue of, say, Teddy Roosevelt. You hit the button on your phone or on the speaker and hear about Teddy Roosevelt.”
Dwyer said that all aspects of each figure would be noted, giving the visitors the full picture of who that American historical figure was.
“We want our young people to grow up wise,” he added, noting, “We’re not being right-wing reactionaries wanting to return to another time. It’s just that we think our country is great, despite its flaws. And we’re not bashful about featuring figures who were great men in our history.”
Conceivably, he said, there would be Confederate and Union figures in the park. Democrats and Republicans and others. He said Native American figures like Quanah Parker and Stand Watie would be included as well.
“This thing is getting traction,” he said of Patriot Park. “Folks are fired up.”
He also said several sculptors have stepped up to make duplicate statues for the park at a discounted rate.
Meanwhile, Murdock, the Panhandle-area senator, said he hopes there is a time in the near future when people who have different philosophies and approaches to history and historical monuments can come together and “have a calm, intelligent conversation about these statues.”
Regardless, Murdock said events are happening quickly and need to be recorded for future generations. And a part of that is protecting historical statutes, even the ones that may represent a belief or ideology that may be disagreeable to some. The important thing is acknowledging history.
“We are living history right now,” Murdock said. “I think we need to document it.”