Defenders argue to keep controversial Connecticut war statue at Capitol

Photo of Ken Dixon

HARTFORD — A statue of a 17th century Connecticut war leader was the target of opposition and support on Thursday, when a little-known state commission held a forum on whether the 3,000-pound marble likeness remains in place overlooking the state Capitol’s north entrance.

State Historian Walter Woodward, associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, recommended that the statue of Maj. John Mason remain in place. Woodward recommended enhanced educational programming, including him involved in group tours to discuss the 1637 battle in which Mason ordered the burning of a Pequot tribal village in Mystic that killed an estimated 400 indigenous people, including women and children.

Instead of removing the 3,000-pound statue from the Gothic niche three stories above the north entrance to the Capitol, Woodward suggested adding more tribal representation to the nearly two dozen historic state leaders, all white men except for the statue of Gov. Ella T. Grasso that was created after her death in 1981.

“As state historian, I believe history and the future are both best served by embracing the complex realities of Connecticut’s past rather than by simplifying or erasing them,” he said. “That past is filled with injustice, pain, inequity and violence. Our present moment has become a time of reckoning with these painful realities. The real story of this violent assault on indigenous culture involves much more than Mason alone.”

Representatives of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation were joined by speakers from the Mohegan Tribe and the Eastern Pequot Tribe in supporting the removal or Mason’s statue, possibly for public display elsewhere. The native American groups had also submitted written and video testimony in advance.

“Statues do not preserve history,” said Mainisha Sinha, another UConn historian who favors removing the Mason sculpture. “Statues commemorate certain aspects, certain people in our history. Taking down statues do not erase history. That is one of the common misconceptions in this debate.”

Sinha recommended removing Mason’s life-size marble sculpture from the facade of the Capitol, which was built in 1878 as a memorial to the Civil War and the founders of the state. “I would really ask you to be very mindful of the viewpoints of all of your citizens and even those who may not have been citizens but are indeed the original possessors of the land on which we live,” she said. “I think it’s high time that you think of removing John Mason’s statue.”

“In our experience, the Pequot War is still being fought in some communities,” said Kevin McBride, a UConn anthropologist who noted that every dawn on May 26, Pequots commemorate the 1637 massacre with ceremonies including drumming, singing and smoke baths called smudging.

“They don’t serve to teach and educate, they serve to remind,” said Ron Wolf Jackson, of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, noting that the sculpture was made in 1903, during a period of continued discrimination against the indigenous tribes, to celebrate an event from more than 250 years earlier.

Marcus Mason Maronn, who said he is a descendant of the controversial soldier, called the taking down of the sculpture an unreasonable demand, pointing to a similar controversy in Windsor, where there is a Mason statue honoring him as a founder of that town.

“The sensitivities of a small minority of unhappy people in no way, shape or form, warrants the removal of either of the Mason statues,” Maronn said. “Besides, the Pequots can present whatever version of history they choose in their own museum, regardless of accuracy or objections.”

The Capitol Preservation & Restoration Commission, an appointed advisory panel that meets quarterly and oversees various projects in and around the Capitol building, will likely vote next month on whether to recommend the statue’s removal, which was a goal of Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairwoman of the legislative Appropriations Committee.

In recent weeks, Osten became a member of the preservation commission and on Thursday she led the questioning of invited speakers.

After the two-and-a-half-hour forum, Osten told reporters that she had originally estimated the removal of the statue to be about $15,000 that would come out of a miscellaneous account on the state Office of Legislative Management. That office operates the 14-acre Capitol complex, including the adjacent Legislative Office Building, where Thursday’s meeting was held with several remote participants.

But during the July meeting of the commission, Eric Connery, facilities administrator, told the panel that professional proposals for the removal exceeded $50,000. Legislative rules indicate that for an amount that high to be approved, there needs to be bipartisan agreement among the top leaders of the General Assembly.

“Rather than spending money to tear down, why not spend that money to add to our visual record?” said Ann Burton, who represented the National Society of Colonial Dames in Connecticut and noted that there are empty niches on the Capitol facade. “We enrich our understanding of history not by removing or trying in 2021 to defeat John Mason, but by adding others who have made contributions to our state.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT