Letters to the Editor: Residents defend statue of influential Southern Utah pioneer

The statue of Robert D. Covington on display in Washington City, Utah, June 28, 2020 | File photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR — A recent call to remove the statue of Robert D. Covington on display in Washington City over concerns about his history with slavery led to a slew of passionate comments from the community sharing their thoughts on the influential pioneer’s legacy and whether statue removal is the right call.

The flood of comments came in after St. George News published a story and follow-up article highlighting Covington, a Mississippi slave owner who freed his slaves after joining The Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints. He later traveled west with other Latter-day Saint pioneers to help settle the St. George area in the mid-19th century.

Much of the passionate discussion that followed the publication of these articles came in the form of comments on Facebook, while other readers took the time to express their thoughts in formal letters to the editor submitted to St. George News.

Following are portions of those letters from Southern Utah residents offering a variety of reasons why the statue should not be removed. As of publication of this article, St. George News has not received any letters in support of removing the statue.

“As part of the human condition, we are all flawed individuals,” Kimball Willard wrote in one of the letters. “This flawed individual was raised in a time when he was taught that cotton farming, using the technologies of the day, was not a financially viable operation without the use of slave labor … This individual, when taught of a better way, a better understanding of the value of those around us, gave up slavery.”

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

“So, the question that must be addressed is, do we support the bringing down of this statue or not? One opinion is that Robert Covington was at one point involved with and supported slavery so we cannot celebrate this individual,” Willard continued. “Another opinion, the one that I share, requires us to look at the individual as a whole, ‘warts and all,’ as they say. Yes, he was involved with and supported slavery at one point in his life. But he was willing, when learning the inestimable value each individual has, to walk away from that existence.”

St. George resident Julie Thompson highlights Covington’s dedication to the tenets of Jesus Christ and the penance he displayed in giving up slavery as reasons to celebrate the statue, not to remove it.

“That statue should give hope and peace to those seeking racial injustice knowing that if a man who once owned and overlooked a cotton field in the south could have such a mighty change of heart occur in just his young life (in his late 20s) that he freed the people who were enslaved to him and began a life anew, that so too can each individual across the nation have a mighty change of heart.”

“Of course, that would mean each individual would need to follow in the footsteps of Christ for such a mighty change to occur,” Thomson wrote. “And if you don’t believe in Christ, can you believe in change and hope for a better world and life just as Robert did? Start there, celebrate progress. Find someone of history to our area that helped further along righteous progress here and offer up a way to raise awareness for them instead of reaching backwards into history to find offense.”

Leeds resident Patricia Cundick also offers a defense of the statue remaining in place, explaining that those petitioning for its removal “are to be commended for their desire to do something to combat racism. However, their plan to remove the Washington City statue of founder Robert D. Covington is misguided and would only create resentment that could hinder a good cause.”

“Taking down a statue can only be effective in furthering racial equality if that statue honors a person for deeds of racial bigotry or violence,” Cundick wrote. “The statue of Robert Covington does not fit in that category. It was installed to honor the man, and the people he represented, for courageous and almost superhuman efforts in establishing a thriving community in Southern Utah against great odds.”

Cundick writes that history is full of admirable efforts made by imperfect people:

I suggest that it is not our job to judge them by our current standards and situation, but to appreciate the good they accomplished and perhaps learn from their mistakes. By and large these imperfect people are remembered for what they did to build and lift. Perhaps, rather than working to erase their names or tear down their memorials, we should follow their lead. I would hope that in our time we can consider how we can lift others, celebrate what good we find, search for common ground and build something that will be worth honoring in the future.

In his letter, Jon Gib suggests that it is correct to acknowledge problematic historical figures but that removing statues isn’t the way to espouse needed change.

“George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. James Madison. These men and other founding fathers, these men and most of the first presidents of the United States were slave owners. Slavery was a dark cloud over the history of the United States. … Its reverberations still echo through our society in the form of racism and bias. We are in midst of addressing the lingering hate and violence, hurt and inequity that slavery has left behind. The question is, does removing statutes or reminders of those who were associated with the practice of slavery really help move toward repairing the pain of racism?”

“The problem with these statues is mirrored in the way we learn the history of our nation through textbooks, biographies, documentaries and films,” Gib wrote. “These men are heroized instead of looked at through the complex lens of the society of their times. We gloss over or ignore the injustices they created and/or perpetuated. They were complex people who did good things, but they also did bad things and sometimes made bad choices.”

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

“The statue of Robert Covington should not be torn down,” Gib continued. “We should acknowledge the efforts of those whose came before us. We are enjoying the benefits of those efforts. However, we should also acknowledge the inequality and injustice that built our nation and state. The statues should be joined with a plaque that explains the complex history of Covington, the good and the bad. By tearing down the statue we may not be heroizing someone who was not completely deserving of that term hero, but we also erase those he marginalized from our attention as well.”

Rory Terry takes the view that conflating the statue with racism is disingenuous.

“I can’t imagine a single person, upon viewing this statue, saying, ‘Boy, that slavery was a wonderful thing. I sure admire Robert Covington because he was a slave owner.’ Statues don’t talk, so the only reason one would offend you is because of the thoughts in your own mind,” Terry wrote. “Maybe you should stop being so preoccupied with race and get a life. All this concern about statues supporting racism is more a reflection of the paranoia of some people than of the community’s attitudes about race.”

Cedar City resident J. Hancock posits that calling to remove the statue is a “truly evil position” to take because it suggests that “society is best served by ignorance to its own history.”

“Robert Covington I’m certain was not a perfect man, making good decisions and poor decisions throughout his life, just like every other citizen in present-day southwest Utah. However, when faced with a turning point, he chose correctly and freed his slaves,” Hancock wrote, later stating, “The statue of Robert Covington resides on the grounds of a museum, a place to showcase history and teach future generations about the past, both triumphs and failures, lessons better learned than repeated due to simple ignorance.”

Several residents implored Washington City officials not heed the calls for statue removal, including St. George resident Jean Rygg.

“I believe that forcing and threatening people to do things against their will and without giving them time to follow the due process of law is wrong. Is that not called tyranny? … In order to be fair to their community needs to have the time and opportunity to hear the voice of all the people,” Rygg wrote. “I also believe it is wrong to insinuate that the leaders of the city of Washington, Utah, and others who are law-abiding citizens are racists or white supremacists because they wanted to honor a man in the history of their community who, in estimation and agreement of the citizens, was worthy of creating a statue of him because of the good they did in their community.”

St. George News thanks all who have taken the time to share their thoughts on this and many other topics of interest to the Southern Utah community. We welcome your input and look forward to hearing from many more readers in the future.

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!