More than 100 humanities professors and students have submitted a letter to the New York City Mayor’s Commission on Monuments calling for statues of Christopher Columbus and former President Theodore Roosevelt to be torn down, saying that such monuments are an “affront in a city whose elected officials preach tolerance and equity.”
The letter begins, “As scholars of American art, cultural history and social analysis, we are writing to urge that the Commission recommend the removal of several monuments from public view in New York City. They have long been highlighted as objects of popular resentment among communities of color and anti-racist scholars, artists, and movements.”
According to the letter, the statue of Roosevelt is offensive because he is shown riding on horseback, while two individuals who appear to be African American and Native American are following him on foot. The statue was built in front of the American Museum of Natural History and was designed to pay tribute to Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts as a champion of U.S. land and wildlife conservation. The individuals who signed the letter also claim that the museum served as “center of the American eugenics movement in the early years of the twentieth century.”
The second monument that the professors find offensive is the statue of Christopher Columbus, which stands in the middle of Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Even though the statue exists as a monument to Italian-American heritage, the letter’s signatories claim “Italian-Americans cannot be allowed to override his key role in the historical genocide of Indigenous peoples of the Americas.”
In response to the events in Charlottesville, Va., in early August, Mayor Bill de Blasio, D-N.Y., established a Commission on Monuments to help determine which, if any monuments in NewYork served as to what de Blasio referred as “symbols of hate.” In late October, the monument to Theodore Roosevelt was defaced with red paint in the early morning hours.
“The Roosevelt monument by James Earle Fraser could be profitably displayed alongside Fraser’s The End of the Trail in the Metropolitan Museum,” the authors write, “so that viewers could explore how race and eugenics were visualized in the period.”
While the professors and artists are calling for the statues to be removed from their current locations, they do not believe that the statues should be demolished or locked away for no one to see. Instead, they suggest creating a new exhibit for the Roosevelt statue that would portray the 26th president of the United States as being linked to the eugenics movement.
“In short, we see the outcome of the Commission not as destroying heritage, let alone the purported erasure of history, but as the beginning of an exciting new set of possibilities for public art and museums in New York City, one finally devoted to an inclusive and reparative vision of the difficult histories of settler colonialism and the Indigenous peoples of this land,” the letter concludes.
John Patrick (@john_pat_rick) is a graduate of Canisius College and Georgia Southern University. He interned for Red Alert Politics during the summer of 2012 and has continued to contribute regularly.