Originally published April 22, 2007.
NEBRASKA CITY -- It's 71 degrees amid the towering trees surrounding Arbor Lodge State Historical Park as I stare up at the monumental statue of the famed owner of this lovely plantation of trees, J. Sterling Morton.
Beneath the heroic bronze, an inscription: "J. Sterling Morton. 1832-1902. Author of Arbor Day."
Author of Arbor Day. Odd way to put it. Author? Oh. I get it. He was an author. Wrote the "Illustrated History of Nebraska." Also, Morton was the author, if you will, of one of the earliest newspapers in the Territory of Nebraska and author of many of the territory's first laws.
Yes, about all that. The state of Nebraska likes to forget all that stuff Morton authored. Cover it up, more like it. Fake it. Rewrite it, then make money off it.
Don't buy it. J. Sterling Morton was an awful human being and arguably the worst influence on the soul of this state in our history.
Erase this wannabe Southern plantation from view and travel back to the late 1850s, when the Territory of Nebraska was only a few years old and the fight for its soul -- whether it would be a racist land or a land of liberty -- was reaching full pitch.
In the southeast corner of the state, thousands of immigrants from Northern states were rolling through to Kansas to help make it a free state.
Along that same trail, several Nebraska pioneers were using modified U.S. mail wagons to shepherd escaping slaves north along the westernmost route of the Underground Railroad.
The leader of this line of the Underground Railroad was John Brown.
A village, Falls City, was started on the Nebraska stretch of the trail. It quickly became the headquarters in the region for the abolitionists, all members of the new Republican Party.
One of those men was Elmer Dundy, later Judge Dundy, famed for his humane decision in the trial of Standing Bear. Also, Isham Reavis, later a territorial Supreme Court judge in Arizona. And John Burbank, later governor of South Dakota. Gen. Jim Lane was there, as were dozens of his fighting men. Brown was there not long before his capture in 1859 at Harpers Ferry, Va.
They were people willing to die to crush slavery.
David and Ann Dorrington were there. Even their children worked on the Underground Railroad, including their adolescent son, William.
(Full disclosure: William is my great-great-grandpa. My loathing of Morton may be genetic.)
In 1857, with the Dred Scott ruling potentially opening up the Territory of Nebraska to slavery, or at least codified racism, the abolitionist Republicans around Falls City began a push to gain control of Nebraska from the Southern Democrats, the slave-staters, who were led by Northerner J. Sterling Morton.
By late 1860, after a series of rowdy and surely corrupted elections, the abolitionists were successful. Once they took control, they rewrote territorial law to create a foundation of a free, progressive state, not the slave state of which Morton dreamed.
For this, Morton always hated the founders of Falls City almost as much as he hated people who weren't white.
In the 1890s, Morton began compiling his "Illustrated History of Nebraska, " much of which was published after his death in 1902. Morton wrote grotesquely revisionist history that wiped the abolitionist Republicans from the story of the state except when Morton held them up for mockery.
In his book, he proudly documented one of the resolutions he authored for the territory's 1864 Democratic platform:
"Resolved, That negroes are neither by nature nor by education, entitled to political nor social equality with the white race, that we are opposed to permitting them to hold office in the territory themselves or to vote for others for office; that we are bitterly hostile to the project of amending the Organic Act (the proposed statehood law) so as to permit them to vote."
Reflecting in the 1890s on that proposed resolution, Morton (who, by the way, often used the "N-word") apparently wrote in the third person, as if he were a historian making wise comment on old wisdom:
"The declaration of the status of the negro is not much out of harmony with the present general opinion which has been reached after 40 years of painful experiments along the lines of an opposite theory, and the established practice even today in every southern state is in accordance with Morton's harsh dictum."
If you want the last laugh, write history when you're old.
In 1904, one of the Republicans, attorney Isham Reavis, told his son after reading Morton's book: "Morton still lives, and still hates."
Isham Reavis is correct to this day.
Not because of Arbor Lodge, or Arbor Day, or any of the present-day tree-planting, ecological programs fostered by the Arbor Day Foundation. That's all fine -- quite beautiful, in fact.
Morton's hate still lives at the heart of this state because the leaders, then and later, let it live. After the Civil War, Morton often led the fight to limit blacks' access to all sorts of opportunities.
Morton's plan was to keep them locked out. Not through slavery, but through the sort of backroom, tacit racism that fostered the racial inequities, and racial tensions, in the state's industrial engine of Omaha.
Then, after helping derail efforts to give equal opportunities, he had the gall to write a history book claiming his point of view on white supremacy had been proved to be correct.
Not only that, he rewrote his own story with Arbor Day to elevate himself, the racist planter of hedgerows, above the sowers of freedom.
And Nebraska gives him a pass, likely, admittedly, with the help of former abolitionist Republicans who got quiet as they themselves got rich and fat.
It was a brilliant little plan, really. And sickening.
Sickening that down in the halls of the State Capitol, under the Sower, his bust sits in the Nebraska Hall of Fame, supposedly a hall memorializing the good and the great of this state.
Morton is neither. He is simply a blight in an otherwise honorable hall.
Simple solution to this ancient dishonor: Throw away the bust of J. Sterling Morton.
It would be more than just throwing out the trash. It would be the perfect way to announce that it's time to look honestly at our past and to force this author of hate, J. Sterling Morton, to finally die.