New York City media reported Jan. 11 on the results of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s monthslong Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers. The 18-member commission was created to review “all symbols of hate” throughout the city. The commission’s task was to recommend which of the city’s controversial statues, monuments and markers of historical figures should remain or be removed.
The commission came into being following last August’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a counterprotester was murdered. Nationwide debates ensued about racist Confederate monuments and symbols. Pressure mounted on local governments to remove them, with some monuments marked with anti-racist graffiti.
More than 800 “symbols of hate” in New York City were considered by the commission. It held three formal in-person meetings and one public hearing in each of the five boroughs, including multiple phone conferences. There were 3,000 responses to online surveys.
The completed report was written by commission members and city staff. Their recommendation was that “all the statues will remain where they are, except that of the Dr. Marion J. Sims, known as the [19th century] ‘father of gynecology’ for his brutal experimentation and racist practice of performing unethical surgical techniques on enslaved Black women, without anesthesia, antiseptic or their consent.” (tinyurl.com/yb6rfu86)
Sims’ monument, located prominently at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue in front of Central Park in East Harlem, will be removed and relocated to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn where he is buried. The commission’s report stated: “In its current location, the Sims monument has come to represent a legacy of oppression and abusive practices on bodies that were seen as subjugated, subordinate and exploitable in service to his fame.”
Among other white supremacy symbols not marked for removal by the commission were a statue of colonizer Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle and a plaque in the Financial District honoring French Marshal Philippe Petain, head of France’s Vichy government, which sent thousands of Jews to their deaths. The mayor accepted the recommendation for the removal of just the one statue. The commission is now disbanded.
The commission directed the city to add plaques to the relocated Sims statue and at the location of the existing pedestal at Central Park explaining the history of the statue. The city will partner with a community organization to provide in-depth public dialogues about nonconsensual medical experiments, particularly on women of color. The city will also commission new work, with public input, that reflects issues raised by Sims’ legacy.
A statement by East Harlem Preservation, which campaigned diligently to remove the monument honoring Sims, noted: “Throughout our campaign, East Harlem Preservation maintained that the statue’s presence did a huge disservice to the neighborhood’s majority Black and Latino residents — groups that have historically been subjected to medical experimentation without permission or regard for their well-being. There are many African American and Puerto Rican women and men who’ve made great medical and scientific contributions that have benefited our community.” (eastharlempreservation.org)
In response to the commission’s recommended removal of the statue, East Harlem Preservation commented that they were “disheartened to learn that the Sims statue is the only monument to white supremacy that will be removed in New York City.”
But they thanked the commission for “respecting the wishes of 20,000 petitioners, neighborhood residents, and members of the Coalition to Remove the Dr. Sims Statue. Although the statue’s removal may be a symbolic gesture, it presents an opportunity to continue the dialogue on racism and violence against women of color that we helped initiate. We invite you to join us at an upcoming dialogue on creating a new artistic vision for the site.”