The city council’s action, taken late Tuesday just days before Presidents’ Day, follows months of deliberation and community meetings.
A bust of founding father and slave owner George Washington will be moved from Watsonville City Plaza and into the city’s library, where it will have a bilingual plaque with a more comprehensive history of who Washington was, the city council decided late Tuesday.
The council’s action, just days before Presidents’ Day, follows months of deliberation and community meetings. It has its roots in summer 2020, when competing petitions about the fate of the bust drew the city’s attention.
The vote, which took place as midnight neared on Tuesday, tallied 5-2, with council members Lowell Hurst and Ari Parker opposing.
It comes amid a wave of similarly heated debates around the country about what to do with statues in the face of widespread scrutiny of historical figures, especially ones who owned slaves.
Watsonville residents calling for removal — many of them young progressives, including a high school student who identified herself as Alma and stayed up late to speak at the meeting — see Washington as a symbol of white supremacy and violence against Black and Indigenous people.
Several pointed out that the city council had voted earlier in the night to fly the Black Lives Matter flag during Black History Month, and said the vote on the bust should be in line with those same values.
However, even within the anti-statue group, there were different ideas about what to do once the bust was removed.
Some thought it should be discarded, not displayed anywhere.
“Remove it, melt it, throw it away,” one resident said during public comment. “Let’s not put it in our library because there is no such thing as compromising with white supremacists.”
Others, such as Jenny Sarmiento from the Pájaro Valley Cesar Chavez Democratic Club, said the library was a more appropriate venue because it allowed for more historical context and nuance than just having the bust stand alone in a park.
“Keep in mind that most of us have been taught a very fragmented and misleading account of American history,” she said. “We hope that the relocation of the bust to the library will have an opportunity to offer more vivid and content rich account of our unfolding history.”
Supporters of keeping the bust in the plaza — a minority during Tuesday’s public comments — argued that the statue memorializes Washington as a crucial player in the nation’s early years, and think he should not be held to modern-day standards. “Those who are free of sin are the ones who can cast a stone. And I don’t think any of us are free of sin,” said a member of the public who identified herself as Brenda Blake.
The city council’s vote to move the statue to the library went against a recommendation from city staff to keep the bust in the city plaza and add a plaque with more historical context. Former mayor and council member Rebecca Garcia proposed the motion that the bust move to the library. She said her research into Washington’s actions, including his unwillingness to free his slaves, his creation of fugitive slave laws and his role in decimating Native groups, convinced her of her position.
“Washington was not a man who practiced the right to life, liberty and Pursuit of Happiness,” she said. “The bust is a reminder of the dehumanization experienced by slaves and Natives.”
Hurst and Parker said they saw valid points from both sides, and were in favor of putting the issue to the voters to arrive at a definitive answer. Mayor Jimmy Dutra, a U.S. History teacher, said he finished a lesson on Washington this week, and hosted a robust discussion with his eighth grade students ahead of Tuesday’s council meeting to gauge how they felt about the bust. Even at 13 and 14 years old, “they were split evenly” on the issue, he said. “Many did see the significance of the historical value.”
“I believe that this bust, no matter how you look at it, is an educational piece,” he said. “I am not in favor of throwing it in a landfill or getting rid of it. It was a gift to the city and we need to learn from it. But is the setting in the park the right place for it? And that, at this time, I don’t think it is.”
Although a timeline has not yet been decided for moving the bust, the city will pay for the statue to be removed from the plaza and into the library. A bilingual plaque will then be added to the base of the bust. The city will work with local historians and academics to develop the language for the plaque, according to Nick Calubaquib from the Watsonville Parks and Recreation Department. Initial estimates show the cost would be between $7,000 and $9,000 for the relocation and addition of the plaque, Calubaquib said on Tuesday.
The Watsonville bust was unveiled almost exactly 20 years ago, on Feb. 19, 2001. Lloyd F. Alaga, a Watsonville resident, had left donations to the city in his will, and one was specifically left to be used for a bust of George Washington. Alaga thought the city suffered from “a dearth of public statuary” before his death in 1997.
In May 1999, the council unanimously voted to accept the $100,000 Alaga left in his will and hired Santa Cruz artist Michelle Armitage to create the bust. The statue was inscribed, per Alaga’s request, with “George Washington, 1732-1799, Father of His Country” and the saying, “First In War, First In Peace, First In The Hearts Of His Countrymen.”
Dutra offered a history lesson in a social media post earlier this week, acknowledging Washington’s role as commander of the Continental Army that defeated the British and as the nation’s first president.
Dutra also noted that Washington “owned slaves, wouldn’t release them until after he died for personal reasons and he would use their teeth as his own (he had a mouth disease). . . . Additionally, he wouldn’t initially allow for slaves to participate in the Revolutionary War because he didn’t want to interfere with colonists’ property. . . . Eventually, he allowed for them to fight because their numbers of soldiers were dropping significantly.”
In summer 2020, as civil rights protests swept the country and cities were forced to confront symbols of white supremacy, Watsonville residents turned their eyes to the Washington bust. After several sit-ins at the plaza by groups on opposite sides of the issue, and long town hall meetings, the city launched a survey for 30 days in September to gauge how residents were feeling about the issue.
Nearly 500 Watsonville residents responded — there were 1,231 total respondents, but the city narrowed answers down to those who provided verified addresses within the city limits. Of residents who took the survey, 59% (294 people) said they preferred to keep the bust, while 36% (180) said they wanted it to be removed, and 5% were indifferent.
Watsonville’s discussions on what to do with the bust follow the San Francisco school system’s recent decision to rename 42 schools, including one named after Washington.
Locally, Cabrillo College has been considering a name change on the assertion that its namesake, 16th-century Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, was a slave trader and murderer of indigenous people.
And the city of Santa Cruz in December voted unanimously to remove the city’s last remaining mission bell on Soquel Avenue at Dakota. Critics argue the bell is a symbol of the subjugation and annihilation of Indigenous people during the Spanish colonization of California in the 18th century.