Replacing Jackson's portrait stirs controversy in historic City Hall

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll gives her inaugural address at the Peabody Essex Museum in January 2018.

SALEM, Mass. — Andrew Jackson’s days here may be numbered.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll is proposing to relocate a portrait of the seventh president of the United States from a wall in the City Council chambers to an anteroom. To replace it, city leaders want to commission a Native American artist for a portrait of a leader of the Naumkeag tribe that called the region home before Salem was settled by English colonists in 1626.

Driscoll said she views this as “an exchange, to an extent,” taking a portrait of a white man, already surrounded by art depicting other white men — and in this case someone who has “somewhat of a tortured history” of abuses of Native Americans — and replacing it with a portrait of a Native American.

“Salem has such an embarrassment of riches in our history. There are so many things to talk about,” she said. “Oftentimes, the roles of indigenous people here and their prominence in this space we now call Salem isn’t something that has always been highlighted or represented — and it isn’t purposeful, because we have so much history, but this is one area that we think is important to highlight.”

The proposal, led in part by Elizabeth Peterson, director of the living history museum Pioneer Village, calls for Jackson’s painting to be relocated and “in its place, a frame and sign be placed until such time as the commissioned portrait of a representative of the Naumkeag people can be completed and hung in said location.”

A City Council committee is considering the order, with a meeting expected this month. Officials hope the artwork can be commissioned, created and displayed by the end of next June.

No representation

Salem is one of the oldest incorporated communities in the country. Six years after the arrival of the Mayflower in New England, a group of settlers tied to the failed Cape Ann fishing settlement arrived in what would become Salem. It had been home to an already suffering and dwindling native population known as the Naumkeag.

Three years later, the settlement was more officially established. It would later become a city, with the City Hall that exists today built in 1836, the second to final year of Jackson’s presidency.

Today, Salem’s tourism engine prominently features the 17th century witch trials, the maritime trade and other aspects of local history — even down to the original settlement, at Pioneer Village.

But when it comes to the Naumkeag, there isn’t much.

“We’re excited to open the door, to hear some of this history,” said Driscoll, “and we hope that this portrait is part of what we can do.”

Little was said before the issue was sent to committee. City Councilor Tom Furey called attention to nine paintings around the City Council’s chambers and how “most of us couldn’t name a couple of them.”

“Each is a male and white, no women,” he said. “Now (there is) a slight, slight crack in the reality of the 21st century, we may now have a Native American woman of Naumkeag heritage. I’m very glad to have President Jackson moved.”

Founding father

But the proposal has opposition. In an email to city officials, local attorney John Carr described the proposal as “Mayor Driscoll’s latest foray in political correctness.”

“Maybe we should expunge the memory of every founding father who was also a slave owner, including Washington and Jefferson, change the name of the nation’s capital, wipe their portraits off our coinage and currency, and redress every other historical wrong that violates our current 21st century sensibilities,” he wrote. “And once we have legitimized such a PC bandwagon, let’s even include the first settlers of Salem and our predecessors every generation since then, who at one time or another may have been mean to one group or another.”

In response, Driscoll acknowledged Jackon’s “tortured history.”

“Certainly, his treatment of Native Americans is not something for us to be proud of,” she said. “And what we know now about that, it only seems fitting that we’re not removing him from City Hall, just placing his portrait in another part of the chamber — the anteroom.”

Dustin Luca writes for The Salem News. Reach him at DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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