‘We’re all flawed to some extent’: Call for statue removal sheds light on Robert Covington’s legacy

The statue of Robert D. Covington rises into a hazy, summer sky, Washington, Utah, June 28, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Following a recent story about a request for the statue of Robert Dockery Covington to be taken down from outside the Washington City Museum, St. George News received further information from both the descendants of Covington and Latter-day Saint author Joanna Brooks that led to further inquiry.

The statue of Robert D. Covington stands at the Washington City Museum, Washington, Utah, June 28, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

The main crux of conflict in the story arose from a 2012 Salt Lake Tribune article written by Brian Maffly and cited by Brooks in her recent book, “Mormonism and White Supremacy.”

In the article, “Utah’s Dixie was steeped in slave culture, historians say,” published Dec. 10, 2012, Maffly wrote that Covington enjoyed recounting acts of abuse against his slaves while he was a slave driver in Mississippi.

Following the publication of this Salt Lake Tribune article, a correction followed, which pointed out that the record about abuse toward slaves was not referring to Covington but someone else. However, there was no mention of the correction in the article itself, which remained unchanged for over seven years until St. George News’ June 29 story brought the issue to light.

“The Covington family convinced me that another person was being referenced,” Maffly told St. George News, noting that the Salt Lake Tribune would correct the archived article to avoid further confusion.

Maffly said he had misinterpreted a journal entry found in “Playing With Shadows: Voices of Dissent in the Mormon West,” in which it is not Covington that author George Hicks wrote as having entertained his guests with narrations of cruelty against his slaves but rather Albert Washington Collins.

According to Hicks’ book, Collins was Covington’s first councilor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The book further states that the Covington and Collins families were interconnected, and both had cotton plantations near the now-extinct town of Summerville, Mississippi, before they traveled to Utah in 1847.

The statue of Robert D. Covington stands at the Washington City Museum, Washington, Utah, June 28, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

What Hicks writes specifically about Covington in the book is that, “He was a strong Rebel sympathizer and rejoiced whenever he heard of a Southern victory.”

Brooks, whose book cites Maffly’s article before it was corrected, told St. George News that while the sources are complicated, she is “very comfortable” with what she wrote. She said as a historian, she has spent her life studying how to read silences within a text and find meaning when the record isn’t entirely clear.

“No one questions that he made his living as a slave driver — that’s a matter of record,” she said of Covington. “The institution of slavery runs on the physical and sexual exploitation of Black people.”

As the rest of the country changes, she said it would be a shame for the beauty and richness of Southern Utah “to get hung up on wasteful, outdated statues.”

“Richmond, Virginia — the capitol of the Confederacy — took down its confederate statues this week,” she said, “and Washington, Utah, is still not OK with taking down its confederate statues.”

Considering statues such as Covington’s, Brooks said it’s time to look at how people are being affected currently.

“Beyond question, Southern Utah has a deep connection with confederate history, and it’s time for a wide-open conversation that doesn’t just focus on the reputations of dead people, but that focuses on how living people are doing, the impacts of this history on people today — specifically on people of color.”

“If we go back into these oral histories, like all history, they are tangled and complicated. What we can know for sure is there is a history to be unpacked here, not covered up, not excused.”

The statue of Robert D. Covington rises into a hazy, summer sky, Washington, Utah, June 28, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Statues represent the current time, she said. They go up for a reason. They go up to remind the present that this type of domination continues, she said.

“It’s not right to idolize the past, and it’s not right to make people from the past villains, either. But our people, our time, our generation put these statues up, and it’s on us to ask why,” she said. “Why do we build idols of these people in our moment? That’s on us. We can forgive our ancestors for their many shortcomings by understanding them and resolving to do better.”

When it comes to facing uncomfortable pieces of the past, Brooks said there shouldn’t be any shame.

“We all have ancestors who we’re not proud of. This is about now — how we invest our money now, why we buy statues now that commemorate regrettable pasts, and how we will live going forward.”

Nathan Wells, a great-great-great-grandson of Covington, told St. George News that the idea of Covington being a harsh man just doesn’t align with family records.

“I’ve always known about his involvement in slavery. My understanding is he regretted that past and regretted that involvement in what we would all consider an evil practice,” Wells said. “But then I also understand that he had a truly profound change of heart and moved on to achieve remarkable things that improved the lives of countless people.”

He said according to family records, there’s no doubt that Covington was a highly educated and industrious man whose leadership was key in making the Washington County settlement successful. Wells also pointed out that Covington didn’t sell his slaves — he freed them.

“I think that is somewhat telling,” he said. “One of the families who had been enslaved went with him. He followed him across the Plains. I think that says something about his character.”

An historical text of family records is quoted as follows:

When talking of joining the saints in Nauvoo was first mentioned, the slaves protested for they had deep love for their master. They all wanted to go, too. In 1845, when he moved, one couple with their children did go. (I do not know if they came on to Utah or not. But, my brother living in Idaho by chance met a colored man who said that his Father came West with Robert O. Covington, and they later settled in Idaho.) Green Flake was the colored mans name.

Historical texts describe Robert Dockery Covington. | Image courtesy of Nathan Wells, St. George News

Wells said he considers Covington to be a man who cared about all people. During a church conference, it was written that he encouraged church members to work with the Native Americans and to give them food and clothing.

“So in the cultural environment, I see someone who was progressive for his time,” Wells said.

The statue of Covington serves as a great symbol for what society is facing right now, he said. Interestingly, just weeks before a professor asked the city to take down the statue, Wells said that he had taken his children to see it.

“I wanted them to see who he was,” he said. “He was a man who was involved in something that was very ugly and deplorable, but then he transformed his heart. He freed the slaves on the plantation, and then he went on to achieve many profound accomplishments. I think that is something worth celebrating.

“It’s a story. It’s uplifting. I believe it’s true. But with history, there’s always going to be words. We’re all flawed to some extent, and that’s the reality of it.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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