For more than 100 years, a 7-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson towered over members of New York City Council in their room at City Hall, a testament to his role as one of the founding fathers of the nation and the principal author of The Declaration of Independence.
But over the past two decades, some Black and Latino Council members, citing Jefferson’s story as a slave owner, have called for the statue’s banishment – a push that gained significant momentum over the past year. , as the nation has widely reconsidered public monuments that can be seen as symbols of systemic racism.
On Monday, city officials voted unanimously to remove the statue from the council chamber, but delayed the decision to install it.
“There are 700 works of art under our jurisdiction, we cannot make a rash decision that will set a precedent for the other 699 works of art that may also have challenges from individuals or other groups of people. people, “Signe Nielsen, chairman of the Public Design Commission, which oversees art on city properties, said in a public hearing before the vote.
The relocation of the statue, requested by the Council’s Black, Latin and Asian Caucus, was to be a done deal: an agreement was already in place to move the statue to the New-York Historical Society. A crate had been ordered to house the statue during the move.
The company had agreed to present the statue in a historical context that captured Jefferson’s legacy as a founding father, but also as a man who enslaved more than 600 people and fathered six children with the one of them, Sally Hemings.
The unexpected delay angered some black and Latino lawmakers, who expected the statue to be moved from City Hall because, as the caucus said in a letter to the mayor, it serves as a “reminder constant injustices that afflicted communities of color. since the creation of our country.
There have been several attempts to remove the statue; Two decades ago, a call to ban the statue attracted attention, but came to nothing.
“Jefferson embodies some of the most shameful parts of our country’s history,” Adrienne Adams, Queens City Councilor and Caucus Co-Chair, said during the hearing.
Its co-chair, I. Daneek Miller, a Queens city councilor, called the commission’s decision “elitist” in an interview after the hearing.
Opposition to the statue’s removal has started to surface in recent days: a group of 17 historians sent a letter to the panel on Monday suggesting that the statue remain at City Hall and simply be moved to the governor’s room, where it was originally housed for most of the 19th century. A Daily News editorial on Monday also questioned the decision, and others spoke out against it during the virtual hearing of the Public Design Commission.
“The deletion is a very simple solution that will erase the debate,” testified Monday Raymond Lavertue, historian at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. He urged the panel to keep Jefferson at the “seat of government in a public space.”
Although Jefferson was “massively flawed,” he added, his ideas about equality should “be confronted on a daily basis.”
The Jefferson Statue debate is part of a larger nation-wide calculation of the racial inequalities highlighted by the murder of George Floyd, the racial disparities still exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and the sometimes violent debate over the question of whether Confederate monuments should be toppled and scrapped.
The committee’s unanimous decision to remove the statue from the hemicycle, but does not exclude moving it to another location in the town hall, illustrates the complexity of such debates.
“This is an issue that will not be easy to explain, go into or decide,” said Commissioner Merryl H. Tisch, who suggested that the motion be suspended for further research. She then pitched the idea of exhibiting the statue at the New York Public Library, alongside a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Some speakers have argued that the statue should remain in the Council Chamber, suggesting its location could facilitate debate over its legacy.
Assembly member Charles Barron, the former city councilor who tried to have the statue removed in 2001, vehemently disagreed.
“I don’t think it should go anywhere. I don’t think there should be, ”Mr. Barron said at the hearing. “I think it should be stored or destroyed or whatever.”
The imposing statue, which sits on a pedestal nearly 5 feet high, is a plaster model of the bronze statue of Jefferson that is on display in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington. It was commissioned in 1833 by Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy, to commemorate Jefferson’s plea for religious freedom in the military.
The statue of Jefferson in Washington, by famous French artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, was dedicated to the American people. The painted plaster version was then given to New Yorkers and arrived at City Hall around 1834. When it first arrived in New York, Levy commissioned to see it and used the product to feed the poor. It was installed in the city council chamber in the 1910s.
Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard Law School professor and Jefferson expert, opposed the idea of removing the Jefferson statue, but said if she were to move to the New-York Historical Society, where she is administrator, that would be the best case.
“It represents an amalgamation of the Confederates and a member of the founding generation in a way that I think minimizes crimes and problems with the Confederation,” Ms. Gordon-Reed said in an interview.
New York City has long struggled with how to deal with monuments of divisive historical figures. After a deadly riot of white nationalists in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, which began as a protest against plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a review of all the “symbols of hatred”. on city property.
A statue of Dr J. Marion Sims, considered one of the founders of modern gynecology, was removed in 2018 from Central Park to Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street because he perfected his procedures on female slaves not anesthetized. After a tense competition, the city chose Vinnie Bagwell, a black sculptor, to replace the statue with “Victory Beyond Sims”, a bronze angel holding a flame.
The Public Design Commission voted to remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt from the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History earlier this year and approved a long-term loan to an unnamed cultural institution, but no other plan has not been announced.
After Mr Floyd’s murder by police sparked what could be the biggest protest movement in US history, Council President Corey Johnson and the caucus renewed the demand to relocate the statue of Jefferson.
In a statement, Mr Johnson said the Historical Society would be able to “responsibly present the story of Thomas Jefferson and this statue in proper historical context,” which is lacking in its “prominent display in the municipal council rooms “.
Others, including M. de Blasio, who appoints a majority of the design commission, were more reserved. The mayor, who last week declined to take a position on the issue, said through a spokesperson after the vote that he respects “the Council’s desire for change, just as we respect the desire of the Public Design Commission to determine the correct location “.
According to experts who follow the monuments, several other statues of Jefferson have been removed or destroyed in the past year, most notably in Georgia and Oregon. Last year, Lucian K. Truscott IV, a direct descendant of Jefferson, wrote in the New York Times that the Jefferson Memorial in Washington should be replaced by a monument to abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
Mr Truscott said during Monday’s hearing that the statue should be removed because he could not imagine what it was like for black members of the city council to see the statue when they entered the bedroom.
Curators from the New York Historical Society intended to present the statue on the first floor of their institution in a historical context that sheds light on the “main contradiction of our founding ideals” and “the lived experience of many American founders, including Jefferson, ”Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the organization, said in an interview.
“We are not burying history in our institution,” Ms. Mirrer said. “We tell the story, and the story is harsh and filled with contradictions.”