At the end of May, anti-racist and anti-Trump slogans appeared on the base of the statue of Tadeusz Kościuszko in Washington, D.C. Among the inscriptions were the letters BLM, which stand for Black Lives Matter.
Some people were upset by the graffiti. As a correspondent with the Polish radio station RMF put it in a tweet (translated here): “The statue of Tadeusz Kościuszko in front of the White House has been vandalized. It is difficult to call them people fighting for their rights when they do not respect THE HERO OF BOTH NATIONS. I was standing there, unable to do anything 🙁 What a tragedy.” The Polish ambassador to the United States tweeted that he was “disgusted and appalled by the acts of vandalism.”
But it is a mistake to take offense. Kościuszko was in fact one of very few white political figures in early American history who demonstrated support for the political claims Black Lives Matter represents.
In his last will, Kościuszko wished for his American wealth—mainly the military salary that the federal government still owed him—to be used for the liberation and education of enslaved black people. In 1817, at the time of Kościuszko’s death, this capital amounted to $17,000. In the same year, according to the historian Brenda E. Stevenson, the price paid for a healthy enslaved person was $450 for a man, $300 for a woman, and $100–150 for a child. Kościuszko’s inheritance could have freed several dozen people.
Yet, Kościuszko made Thomas Jefferson the administrator of his will. Jefferson owned the Monticello plantation that used slave labor. According to the will, he was to use the funds to either pay himself compensation for freeing his own slaves or buy freedom for slaves from other plantations. At the time Jefferson was short of cash and mired in debt, with his plantation generating little profit.
Jefferson never carried out his friend’s wishes. Through a judicial procedure he relinquished his role as the will’s executioner and beneficiary. The reasons were complex—Jefferson explained that he felt he was too old and too tired to complete the task. Kościuszko’s property was coveted both by his Polish family and by the Swiss man who hosted Kościuszko during the last years of his life. Jefferson may, indeed, have felt that he could not risk a long legal battle. Economic calculation may well have prevailed, with Jefferson deciding that instead of cash it was better to keep the enslaved people who worked on his plantations.
Regardless of the reasons, Jefferson’s decision had a symbolic significance. According to Gary B. Nash, Kościuszko’s biographer, the will was not an act of charity, but a declaration of a particular social philosophy. Kościuszko envisioned an America in which black people could find their place as citizens.
The coauthor of a book that juxtaposes biographies of three historical figures—Jefferson, Kościuszko, and Agrippa Hull, a black orderly to the latter—Nash suggests that the personal experience of fighting side by side with Hull and other black soldiers in the war for American independence made Kościuszko understand the plight of the black people and provided ample evidence of the stupidity of racist ideas used to justify subjugation.
Kościuszko believed that black Americans should be free citizens of the republic. The money he bestowed in his will was to be spent on buying land for the freed slaves, along with farming tools that would allow them to have an economically decent life as part of American society. Such a stance was extraordinary even among the abolitionists, who for a long time remained ambivalent on the question of full citizenship of freed black slaves.
We know that it was not only Jefferson, but the whole of the United States that failed to live up to the symbolic meaning of Kościuszko’s will. Slavery remained part of the American political system until the introduction, in December 1864, of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth (1869) and the Fifteenth (1870) Amendments granted black people citizenship and black men the right to vote. But over the next hundred years the authorities in charge of a number of states did all they could to limit the actual rights of the black population.
Despite the subsequent civil rights movement and legislation, black Americans remain a structurally marginalized group. Black Americans are poorer than white Americans and more likely to be imprisoned. Black people are more likely to be victims of the kind of police violence that killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others.
In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” For sure, this is true of slavery, the legacy of which continues to shape the United States, determining life opportunities and life expectancies.
If Tadeusz Kościuszko were to see what is happening today in his second motherland, he would surely stand with the protesters, and not on the side of those who shoot their fellow citizens with impunity. I don’t know if people who wrote “Fuck Trump” and “BLM” on the statue of Kościuszko knew who the Polish-American hero really was. It is quite possible that they didn’t. But their graffiti has unearthed a forgotten history.
In Poland, two philosophers who focus on the tradition of popular resistance—Łukasz Moll and Michał Pospiszyl—have drafted a petition addressed to the Polish government, urging it to make sure that the inscriptions remain part of the statue, as an expression of the demands of black people in contemporary America. The authors wrote (translated here from Polish): “We are certain that had Kościuszko been resurrected, he would himself write Black Lives Matter in big bold letters across his statue.” Whatever idea we may have about the future of the statue, if we wish to remain faithful to Kościuszko’s legacy, we cannot forget who he was.
Jakub Majmurek is a political pundit, film, and art critic based in Warsaw. He writes regularly for media outlets including the biggest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Aspen Review, and Kino. He is the part of the editors team of Krytyka Polityczna, a leftist think tank, publishing house, and internet daily.
This article was translated by Katarzyna Byłów. Originally published at Krytyka Polityczna.