The John W. Mackay statue as it stands on Friday, Feb. 26. Students and faculty are engaging in discourse on whether the statue should remain on campus after the sculptor Gutzon Borglum had affiliations with the Klu Klux Klan.

Isaac Hoops / The Nevada Sagebrush
The John W. Mackay statue as it stands on Friday, Feb. 26. Students and faculty are engaging in discourse on whether the statue should remain on campus after the sculptor Gutzon Borglum had affiliations with the Ku Klux Klan.

How did the Mackay Statue come to campus?

Mackay Statue, located at the northern end of the University of Nevada, Reno’s quad, was sculpted on June 10, 1908. An immigrant from Dublin, Ireland, John W. Mackay was one of the famous “Big Four” from Virginia City, a group of mine owners who profited tremendously from the so-called Big Bonanza of the 1870s. He was a miner who amassed a large fortune in the late 19th century.

“His son, Clarence Mackay, commissioned the present statue shortly after his father’s death [in 1902], to honor his father’s memory,” said Dr. Elizabeth Raymond, who specializes in American history. “It was housed at the university because there was a mining school there, and it was a suitable place for a permanent installation honoring John Mackay’s affiliation with the state.”

Raymond said when Clarence Mackay visited for the installation, he felt the building housing the mining faculty was shabby, so he and his mother donated the money and commissioned the architect, Stanford White to design the present Mackay School of Mines Building.

Who is Gutzon Borglum?

The sculptor that Clarence Mackay commissioned was Gutzon Borglum—the man who sculpted Mt. Rushmore.

Born in 1867 to Danish immigrants, Borglum pursued architecture and design. He sculpted several other historical pieces such as Stone Mountain in Georgia, the statue of Union General Philip Sheridan in Washington, D.C. and a bust of Abraham Lincoln which was exhibited in the White House by Theodore Roosevelt. 

Borglum remains controversial due to his Ku Klux Klan affiliations. The Smithsonian Magazine said he once wrote “I would not trust an Indian, off-hand, 9 out of 10, where I would not trust a white man 1 out of 10.”  

Raymond said Borglum became a renowned progressive supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and champion of American nationalism.  

“KKK affiliation, unfortunately, wasn’t uncommon in the U.S. during the 1910s and 1920s,” she said. “It had absolutely nothing to do with John Mackay, who died in 1902 and never met Gutzon Borglum.”

Because of the sculptor’s background, some students have advocated for the removal of the Mackay statue. Created in July 2020, FUSED UNR created the petition named “End Racist Roots at the University of Nevada, Reno.” Currently, the petition has 233 signatures in support of removing Mackay statue.

“Gutzon spread the oppression of Black and Brown people through his art, allowing racist leaders to be amplified on a larger scale than ever before,” they wrote in their petition. “By allowing John Mackay’s statue to remain on our campus, we are supporting the racist roots of its creator.”

The petition also said Mackay’s wealth was made largely off the backs of Black and Indigenous people in America after spearheading Comstock Lode. The Comstock Lode was popular for silver mining in Virginia City during the late 1800s. As it grew in popularity, the petition said white miners violated the human rights of Indigenous people and did not give them reparations after.

“The Comstock Lode accumulated profits for white men, while simultaneously violating the human rights of both Black and Indigenous people,” the petition said.

In order to discuss the discourse over the statute, the university created the John Mackay Statue Discussion Advisory Committee in October 2020. Dr. Anna Huhta, Director of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering and the head of the committee said the goal of the group is to engage various perspectives from both the University and surrounding community regarding the Mackay Statue and its sculptor.

Huhta believes one of the major contributions the committee can provide is to help address some of the misconceptions that have been circulated about the statue, to put future discussions about it on solid footing, and to provide accurate information and materials to help inform campus tours and the broader community. 

According to Huhta, several organizations have discussed their opinions about the statue including UNR Indigenous Student Organization, Black Student Organization, ASUN, FUSED Student Group, John Mackay Club, GSA, Mackay Rockhounds and College of Science Senator Representatives.

“The committee includes students, faculty, staff, activists, historical and museum professionals, and community stakeholders with the goal of cultivating inclusive discussions regarding these topics,” Huhta said. “Ultimately the advisory committee will provide [u]niversity leadership with recommendations regarding paths forward that incorporate perspectives and ideas shared during committee discussions.”

Huhta believes the Mackay statue should stay based on character and the values that he stood for. She also said Mackay’s values remain consistent with the values of the university and the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering. She said his statue was not crafted to commemorate a racist individual, to condone or celebrate racist acts or beliefs, or to perpetuate oppression.

“For me, I see John Mackay’s legacy as a wonderful example of determination, grit, courage, and back-breaking hard work,” Huhta said. “I see a legacy built from a commitment to continued self-development and a commitment to use his personal development to support equality for all. I believe those are ideals and values worthy of remembering.”

Huhta claims there is no evidence that in March of 1906, when Gutzon Borglum was hired to design the statue, that Borglum held any racist or white supremacist beliefs. She believes any affiliation of Borglum with the KKK happened after the film The Birth of a Nation came out in 1915. 

“Borglum’s contract to complete the Confederate monument was broken off in 1925, and he never completed his planned sculptures of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis,” Huhta said.

Huhta said the Advisory Committee has not submitted any formal recommendations to the university administration regarding the Mackay Statue. 

“While some committee members have expressed interest in removing the statue, the majority support keeping it in place, recognizing it as a commemoration of the character and accomplishments of John W. Mackay, not the views of its sculptor,” Huhta said.

She said many of the committee members have suggested the addition of interpretive materials nearby, potentially in association with the W.M. Keck Museum just inside the Mackay School of Mines building.  

“Each perspective expressed by the committee will be noted and shared with university leadership along with recommendations for actions the university might take regarding the statue and, on a broader scale, to express the university’s unequivocal rejection of systemic racism, prejudice, and discrimination of any kind,” Huhta said.

Any decisions regarding the future state of the Mackay Statue lie with President Brian Sandoval and the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education, according to Huhta.

“It cannot be denied that the story of the settlement and development of Nevada and the American west is also a story of displacement, hardships, inequities, and acts of extreme violence inflicted upon people of color, including its tribal communities,” Huhta said.

ASUN passed legislation in support of erecting a statue of alum Colin Kaepernick in December. Kaepernick statue advocates, ASUN College of Liberal Arts Senator Lauren Harvey and university alum Wenei Philimon, said their project is unique and separate from the Mackay discourse.

Harvey believes these initiatives would dilute the intentions and goals of erecting a Kaepernick statue on campus. She believes that these are two different conversations that must be had on campus.

“We don’t envision Kaepernick replacing anything,” Harvey said. “We believe he should be given his own, original space instead of being used as a way to erase the realities of white supremacy on our campus.”

 

Taylor Johnson can be reached at tkjohnson@sagebrush.unr.edu or on Twitter @taylorkendyll