10 Famous U.S. Landmarks With a Surprisingly Controversial History

Tourists looking at information
Make sure you know the whole history of landmarks, even if it isn’t all pleasant | iStock.com

A fun part of traveling is finally seeing the landmarks that appear in Instagram shots, travel magazines, and history books. Whether it’s the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge, the United States is peppered with landmarks that attract both domestic and international travelers. We all love training our eyes (and our smartphone cameras) on a sight that’s been on our personal bucket list.

But what you might not know is many of the United States’ famous landmarks actually have a surprisingly unsavory history. There are numerous racist monuments in towns and cities across the country. And racist public symbols beyond the Confederate flag are common. But it’s not just local statues, place names, and street names that evoke America’s discriminatory past. Some of our country’s most famous monuments and landmarks remind those in the know of parts of American history none of us should be proud of.

The upshot is there might be more of a backstory than you think behind that historic site on your itinerary. And you might not like everything that’s lurking in its history. Is that a good reason to skip seeing a landmark you were previously excited to visit? That’s up to you. But it’s wise to educate yourself and your family on the whole history of the sites you plan to visit.

After all, the adage that history repeats itself might be a cliche. But it’s extremely important for us to know the history of our nation, so we don’t repeat previous generations’ mistakes or uphold the flawed portions of our forefathers’ legislation. It’s OK if learning that history leaves you feeling conflicted about a landmark or two. Read on to check out some famous landmarks that have some surprisingly negative history behind them.

1. New York City’s Wall Street

Wall Street sign
Wall Street is one of the many landmarks you might want to see in New York City | Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Everybody is familiar with the name of Wall Street, an eight-block street in the Financial District in lower Manhattan. But what most people — New York-bound tourists included — don’t know is how Wall Street got its name.

According to the Library of Congress, the name can be traced to the wall that formed the northern boundary of the New Amsterdam settlement during the 17th century. The wall was originally created, and then strengthened over time, “as a defense against attack from various Native American tribes, New England colonists, and the British, who dismantled the wall in 1699.”

In the 18th century, Wall Street became the site of the city’s first slave market for enslaved Africans and Native Americans. The slave market operated for a little over 50 years, from 1711 to 1762, and the city benefited from the sale of slaves by implementing taxes.

Gothamist argued that New York City as a whole is “a shrine to slave holders and slave profiteers,” noting that monuments to and streets named after prominent slave owners from New York’s history are numerous. Longstanding establishments, including the Waldorf-Astoria and Tiffany & Co., might be attractive to tourists, but men who came into their fortunes by dealing in slave-produced cotton founded them. Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan noted that New York’s struggle to recognize “its slavery-loving past” is “is instructive of a broader New York attitude toward slavery and abolition.” Nazaryan explained:

That era seems almost too complex for us to remember. … [W]hile Southern cities like Charleston, South Carolina, unequivocally supported slavery and New England ones like Boston thoroughly opposed it, New York was probably the most ideologically conflicted urban center in the nation.

2. The White House

white house
Check out the White House to learn more about its history | Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

The White House is a must-see when you’re visiting Washington, D.C. But make sure you’re aware of some of the little-discussed aspects of the residence’s history. Michelle Obama noted in a televised address that the White House had been built by slaves. And The New York Times reported the then-first lady’s assertion “was met with derision and disbelief by some, who questioned whether it was true.”

Snopes confirmed the statement was true. Historians have had difficulty uncovering the details because slaves weren’t considered important to American history. But there’s little dispute among historians that slaves had a hand in building the White House and other landmarks, including the Capitol building; the homes of founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; and even Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

Slavery was legal in D.C. until 1862. Research has indicated at least ⅔ of the workers who built the Capitol and the White House were slaves. The government didn’t actually own slaves. But it did hire them from slave owners. Snopes explained: “Slaves didn’t exclusively build the White House or other monuments; but a review of historical accounts reveals they had a large role in that construction, one which went almost completely unnoticed and unrecorded for many years.”

3. San Francisco’s Chinatown

People wait for a bus in Chinatown
People wait for a bus in Chinatown | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you’re planning to visit San Francisco for the first time, you’ve probably put Chinatown on your itinerary. But as The Huffington Post reported, Chinatowns across the United States “sprang up in large part because of anti-Chinese racism and because of legal barriers that prevented assimilation.”

As Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s, the first Chinatowns sprang up on the West Coast. They were, “at the start, much like ethnic settlements founded by European immigrant groups.” But immigrants were vilified and attacked. And in 1882, Congress barred Chinese immigrants from becoming American citizens and restricted immigration from China.

Immigrants “sought safety in numbers” in Chinatowns. During the era of “exclusion,” which began in the late 19th century and lasted through the 1940s and 1950s, laws and social practices shut Asians out of American life. It was difficult for Chinese immigrants to find places to live and work outside of Chinatowns. And the community organizations in Chinatowns were essential for immigrants who weren’t granted the protection of American citizenship.

As PBS explains, “The Chinese were prohibited by law to testify in court, to own property, to vote, to have families join them, to marry non-Chinese, and to work in institutional agencies.” America’s Chinatowns might attract tourists now, but those tourists often don’t realize the racist history behind them.

4. Yellowstone National Park

Buffalo graze at Yellowstone National Park
Buffalo graze at Yellowstone National Park | Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Numerous national parks were created on land that originally belonged to Native Americans — land that many people think should be returned to the tribes from whom it was seized. One of the most widely discussed papers on the topic is Isaac Kantor’s “Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks.”

In it, Kantor explained that the lands Yellowstone, Glacier, Mesa Verde, and other national parks now occupy purport to show land that was never occupied. But in reality, Native Americans occupied these lands. Kantor explained:

Native Americans have a history in our national parks measured in millennia. They were forcibly removed, and later treaty rights to traditional use such as hunting and fishing were erased, often without acknowledgment or com- pensation. Immediately after these removals, the parks were advertised as a showcase of uninhabited America, nature’s handiwork unspoiled.

Kantor noted the fallacy of “unpeopled wilderness” incorrectly implies that national park lands were historically unoccupied and unmodified. Yellowstone was established in 1872 as the first national park in the U.S. Soon thereafter, “an obsession with halting Indian use of Yellowstone began” in spite of treaty rights that protected their use.

The creation of the park ignored that tribes had been using the land. Kantor wrote that “extinguishing Indian use in subsequent national parks would be simpler. Yellowstone became the template for the national park, and that template did not include recognition of treaty rights.”

5. Glacier National Park

Fall colors saturate Glacier National Park
Fall colors saturate Glacier National Park | iStock.com/ChrisBoswell

Kantor also recounted the history of Glacier National Park in Montana. The original Blackfeet reservation covered ⅔ of the part of the state east of the continental divide. But as disease and decimation of the bison weakened the tribe, the government reduced the size of the reservation.

By 1888, the reservation consisted of the land occupied by the current reservation and the eastern half of modern Glacier National Park. The government suspected mineral wealth in the mountains and pressured the tribe to sell the mountain lands on the western side of the reservation. Because the tribe was in danger of starving, it had to negotiate and sold the land.

Hunting, fishing, and timber-cutting rights on the land were reserved for the tribe for “so long as the same shall remain public lands of the United States.” But the government determined the land did not have significant mineral value. So a national park was created in a bill that didn’t mention the tribe’s rights. Since then, the Blackfeet have been denied hunting and fishing rights in the park with no regard for the original terms of the sale.

6. Mesa Verde National Park

Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
Mesa Verde is the site of important Anasazi ruins, only because of unfair negotiations on the part of the federal government | Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

The third landmark Kantor offered as a case study on America’s creation of national parks is Mesa Verde. Kantor explained Mesa Verde “represents the most recent and evolved taking of lands on our spectrum of Native American removal and dispossession.”

The land agreements for Mesa Verde “were more thoroughly negotiated” than at Glacier, and did not leave Native American use unacknowledged and uncompensated, as happened at Yellowstone, Kantor said. Nonetheless, “the negotiations were between parties of unequal bargaining power, and the results have been problematic.”

Mesa Verde was once part of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwest Colorado and had been home to various tribes, including the Ute and Anasazi, for centuries. The Utes refused to trade or sell the Mesa Verde lands.

But in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Mesa Verde National Park bill, creating a park that covered one of the reservation. The government then began the process of trying to acquire the sites of Anasazi ruins that were on Ute land outside of the park.

The Utes were eventually persuaded to accept a land trade after negotiators pointed out that alternatively, Congress could take their land for nothing. When a later survey indicated that the park still excluded an important site, “Congress passed a bill unilaterally taking 1,320 more acres for Mesa Verde, without notification to the Utes.”

7. The Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty
Most people think of the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France, but there’s more to the story than that | Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most famous American landmarks. As noted by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the statue was originally named “Liberty Enlightening the World” and was created through joint effort between France and the United States.

The statue arrived in New York Harbor in June 1885 and was assembled on its pedestal in four months. By the time President Grover Cleveland dedicated it in October 1886, it was “a centennial gift 10 years late.”

The Statue of Liberty was regarded as a celebration of the Union’s victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. According to the National Park Service, Edouard de Laboulaye, the French political thinker who first proposed the statue, was a firm supporter of Abraham Lincoln’s fight for abolition and saw abolition “as a way to eliminate immorality.”

A broken shackle and chain lie at the statue’s feet. But the NPS noted, “although the broken shackle is a powerful image, the meaning behind it was not yet a reality for African Americans in 1886.” The NPS explained:

After the Statue’s dedication in 1886, the Black Press began to debunk romantic notions of the Statue of Liberty and American History. Racism and discrimination towards African Americans did not end after the Civil War or with the dedication of the Statue – it continued on for more than a century. As a result, the Statue was not a symbol of democratic government or Enlightenment ideals for African Americans but rather a source of pain. Instead of representing freedom and justice for all, the Statue emphasized the bitter ironies of America’s professed identity as a just and free society for all people regardless of race.

8. Mount Rushmore

A tourist takes a picture of Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore is a famous landmark, but few people know the full story of how the monument came to be | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota’s Black Hills, is a pretty impressive sight. The monument features the 60-foot-high visages of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

But, as The Economist reported, there are “two sides to every story.” The publication said “for many American Indians, it is a symbol of all the country has done to betray them.” Mount Rushmore was proposed in 1923 as an attraction for tourists. Calvin Coolidge dedicated it in 1927, and construction finished in 1941.

Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum was linked to the Ku Klux Klan. But that’s not the only problem. The Black Hills contain many sites sacred to Native American tribes. And in 1868, a treaty made the hills part of the Great Sioux Reservation.

But after people discovered gold in the mountains, prospectors migrated there in the 1870s. As PBS reported, the federal government forced the Sioux to relinquish the Black Hills portion of the reservation. “These events fit the pattern of the late 19th century, a time of nearly constant conflict between the American government and Plains Indians,” according to PBS.

In the 1920s, South Dakota historian Doane Robinson suggested the sculpture honor the American West’s greatest heroes, both Native Americans and pioneers. But Borglum rejected the suggestion.

So not only is Mount Rushmore on land that the government took from Native Americans and particularly on land that is considered sacred by multiple tribes, but the monument “celebrates the European settlers who killed so many Native Americans and appropriated their land.”

9. The Hollywood sign

hollywood sign
The Hollywood sign actually originated as an advertisement for a segregated housing development | David McNew/Getty Images

We’ve all seen photos of the Hollywood sign. And if you’re headed to Los Angeles, it might be on your list of landmarks to see. After all, it seems evocative of the golden age of the entertainment business.

But as Deadline reported when the sign was recently altered by vandals, it was erected in 1923 and originally read “Hollywoodland.” What was Hollywoodland? A segregated housing project.

1924 advertisement for Hollywoodland urged (white) residents to “protect your family” by moving to a development “secured by fixed and natural restrictions against the inroads of metropolitanism.” The California Supreme Court had just ruled it was illegal to restrict property sales based on race. But white residents were alarmed by the increasing black and Mexican populations.

The sign was intended to stand for just 18 months, but it quickly became a signature landmark in the city. Its 30-foot letters were poorly maintained and were replaced in 1978 with sturdier, 45-foot letters.

10. The Gateway Arch

The Gateway Arch
The Gateway Arch was intended to symbolize promise | Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis might be one of the most well-known landmarks in the Midwest. But few people know how the arch came to be or what it really symbolizes.

Fred Kaplan reported for Smithsonian Magazine the arch was designed to symbolically link “the rich heritage of yesterday with the richer future of tomorrow.” But Kaplan said, “The promised ‘richer future’ hasn’t exactly come to pass, and social critics put some of the blame for that failure on the arch itself.”

In 1943, local business leaders proposed the idea of a memorial to Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. Their motivation? To rid the waterfront of “blighted” property. City engineer W.C. Bernard even presented the plan as “an enforced slum-clearance program.”

Forty square blocks of riverside property were bulldozed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s interior secretary nearly blocked the project, and then the war disrupted public works projects. After the war, Harry Truman approved the funds for the project. But the site lay empty for a decade.

As part of Dwight Eisenhower’s Instate System of highways, a stretch of highway passed along the site, reviving the arch’s appeal as an attraction. But the highway cut off many residents, most of them poor and black, from the development around the arch. “The displacement came to epitomize 20th-century ‘urban renewal’—a euphemism, James Baldwin quipped, for ‘Negro removal,'” Kaplan said.