UW News

May 5, 2022

UW professors to participate in panel on recently removed Volunteer Park plaque

A road lined by trees leading into a park

University of Washington professors will participate in a discussion about a memorial plaque that was recently removed from Seattle’s Volunteer Park.University of Washington

Three University of Washington professors will participate in a presentation and discussion on May 7 about a memorial plaque that was recently removed from Seattle’s Volunteer Park due to concerns about its accuracy.

Originally called City Park, Volunteer Park was renamed in 1901 to honor veterans of the Spanish-American War. A commemorative plaque — championed by J. Willis Sayre, a veteran of the war who also supported the park’s name change — was installed in 1953 and described the war as one of liberation for the peoples of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. The war is now widely viewed as one of imperial conquest.

In May 2021 — around the same time a community member requested that Seattle Parks and Recreation remove the plaque — Christoph Giebel published a Northeast Asian Weekly op-ed titled “The Big Lie in Volunteer Park.” Seattle Parks removed the plaque that summer.

“Volunteering for Empire: The Wars of 1898 and Seattle’s Volunteer Park” will be held in the Seattle Asian Art Museum in the Stimson Auditorium on Saturday, May 7 from 3-4:30 p.m. Tickets are free and are available through Eventbrite. The program will also be livestreamed via Volunteer Park Trust’s Facebook page.

Giebel, a UW associate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies and of history, focuses on colonialism and imperialism in Asia.

“Words matter,” Giebel said. “Terminology matters in how we commemorate and how we remember. It’s something that needs to be renegotiated all the time. There are also facts, and we must honor our facts even if they make us uncomfortable. In this case, there is simply no way around this misrepresentation.”

The program, “Volunteering for Empire: The Wars of 1898 and Seattle’s Volunteer Park,”will discuss issues with the plaque in relation to the history of the war, its aftermath and how subsequent generations viewed the conflict. It will also examine broader questions related to racism, U.S. foreign policy and the consequences of American wars.

Giebel will moderate a panel featuring UW faculty members Vicente Rafael, professor and historian of Southeast Asian history and American colonialism, and Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, associate professor and historian of Latin American and Caribbean history. Their discussion will examine the intersections of race, colonialism and national identity.

“Volunteer Park is one of the most important public spaces in Seattle, and yet like many of the public spaces in Washington and the U.S., it is permeated with the legacies of the U.S. Empire,” Rafael said. “The stone plaque that commemorated Seattle volunteers’ participation in the so-called ‘liberation’ of the Philippines is just one example of the distortion of history to reflect the dominant historical narrative that U.S. intervention was a sort of rescue mission.”

In the 1890s, a nationalist movement rose against Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. A provisional government had declared Philippine independence by early 1898. Meanwhile, the U.S. declared war on Spain, and Spain surrendered only to the U.S.

American troops refused to recognize Philippine sovereignty. While a constitutional assembly formally established the Philippine Republic in 1899, the U.S.-Spanish Treaty of Paris sold the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico to the U.S.

“The Republic of the Philippines was really Asia’s first republic,” Giebel said. “Within weeks of the declaration of independence, the Americans are coming in and conquering it and destroying it. It was really a war of conquest.”

The Philippine-American war resulted in more than 250,000 Filipino deaths from 1889 to 1902 and caused ecological and economic destruction of the islands, Rafael said. The Philippines remained a U.S. colony until 1946, an occupation that “saw the persistent rise of revolts, insurgencies and colonial counter-insurgencies that resulted in even more violence and massacres.”

“As a Puerto Rican scholar whose family lives in Puerto Rico,” Rodríguez-Silva said, “this is also a unique opportunity to bring attention to the new forms of subjugation to U.S. interests lived by people in former colonies like the Philippines, as well as the everyday realities of dispossession and displacement experienced by inhabitants, and their diasporas, in the U.S. colonies of today: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.”

The event will also feature librarian Abe Ignacio, who co-authored “The Forbidden Book” featuring over 200 political cartoons from 1898 to 1906 that chronicle the war between the United States and the Philippines. Ignacio will explain how the American public viewed the war at the time.

“The conquest of the Philippines is one of the most forgotten wars in American history,” Giebel said. “That moment of the Spanish-American War where America really branched out beyond the continent and became truly an empire, is something that is absolutely covered up in mainstream historical understanding.”

The event is sponsored by Volunteer Park Trust, the UW Southeast Asia Center and the UW Center for Global Studies.

For more information, contact Giebel at giebel@uw.edu, Rafael at vrafael@uw.edu and Rodríguez-Silva at imrodrig@uw.edu.