States shelving U.S. Capitol statues for new models

MILAN, Ohio — Lawmakers looking for a famous Ohioan who best represents their state have a diverse group to choose from: a Rat Pack crooner, brothers who were first in flight, or maybe a great inventor.

The group is working to come up with a replacement for the statue at the U.S. Capitol of a former governor who portrayed blacks as savages, making Ohio the latest of several states that sought to substitute their statues with newer models they feel better represent their history.

The committee is touring the state to narrow the field, starting at the birthplace of light bulb visionary Thomas Edison, where they were greeted by a police escort and the Edison High School marching band.

“You’ve got Dean Martin on one end of the state and Annie Oakley on the other end,” said state Rep. Tom Letson of Warren. “Everyone has a favorite. I want to hear about every one of them.”

There have been plenty of states looking to substitute their statues of forgotten figures. Nine years ago, Congress changed a law that had prevented statue switching.

Each state gets two statues of notable historic figures who are deceased. Most are in bronze or marble and stand in National Statuary Hall, south of the rotunda.

The old law meant some states were stuck with outdated figures, like Alabama and Confederate general Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry. But now, he’s being replaced by a bronze likeness of Helen Keller.

Kansas and California have traded lesser-known natives for former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, respectively. Missouri is making a push for former President Harry Truman, and Michigan is looking at trading up to former President Gerald Ford.

Arizona, now represented by John Campbell Greenway, a decorated veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, wants to honor former five-term U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater.

“No one knows who John Greenway is, not even people in Arizona,” said state Rep. Adam Driggs of Phoenix.

Driggs said he wasn’t out to disparage Greenway, whose statue was put in place in 1930, just 18 years after Arizona became a state.

“We have a much richer history now,” he said.

There have been just a handful of objections to replacing outdated statues. Democrats didn’t put up a fight against the statue of Goldwater, a tough talking pioneer in the conservative movement.

It’s hard to argue with Ohio’s decision to kick out William Allen, a 19th century congressman who supported the rights of Southern slave owners and argued against allowing blacks to join Ohio troops in the Civil War.

Village leaders in Milan, the northern Ohio town where Thomas Edison spent the first seven years of his life, entertained the selection committee with a private lunch at a bed and breakfast.

The four lawmakers shook hands with residents on park benches and picnic blankets who had gathered to welcome the group in the town square that’s lined by poles topped with light bulb-shaped glass.

Don Gfell, wearing an electric light bulb tie, ticked off a list of Edison’s other accomplishments — the phonograph, motion pictures and even the cement that built Yankee Stadium.

“I don’t know how there could be anyone more deserving,” said Gfell, his voice cracking. “This is something that’s really important to us.”

There will be plenty of competition.

The Ohio committee will travel next to Dayton, hometown of flight pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright. Others likely to be considered include Olympian Jesse Owens (Cleveland), comedian Bob Hope (Cleveland) and football coach Paul Brown (Massillon). Then there’s entertainer Martin (Steubenville) and sharpshooter Oakley (Greenville).

The Ohio lawmakers will make a recommendation to the Legislature, which will vote on which historic figure will join the statue of James Garfield, the nation’s 20th president.

Private donations pay for the state statues and for the removal of the old ones, most of which are brought back to their home states for display.

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