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New York City Commission Opts to Keep Columbus Statue, But Under New Conditions

Officials have decided that only one statue will be moved: that of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century gynecologist who experimented on female slaves without their consent.

Statue of J. Marion Sims in Central Park, which will be moved to Greenwood Cemetery (photo Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

The New York City commission that was created to evaluate controversial public monuments has ended its five-month inquiry with a somewhat anticlimactic ruling. Officials have decided that only one statue will be moved: that of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century gynecologist who experimented on female slaves without their consent, and without anesthesia. Other contentious monuments will receive additional context through signage or other interventions that touch on their historical complexities.

The Sims statue is one of four public markers the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monument and Markers discussed in its 32-page report, released yesterday. The commission also presented recommendations for the Christopher Columbus statue at Columbus Circle, the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History, and a marker for Marshal Philippe Pétain, who collaborated with the Nazi regime.

Last October, a group calling itself the Monument Removal Brigade defaced the Teddy Roosevelt statue outside the American Museum of Natural History (photo courtesy Monument Removal Brigade)

The report is the result of three formal meetings by members of the Commission as well as five public hearings conducted in each borough. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who announced the commission last September amid the growing national debate over the presence of public Confederate symbols, reviewed these recommendations and ultimately had the final say on the monuments’ fates. As CBS first reported, the commission was deadlocked on the Roosevelt statue, and de Blasio cast the tie-breaking vote to have it remain. The statue has been the target of #DecolonizeThisPlace protests; last year, activists splashed it with red paint, arguing that it symbolizes “genocide, dispossession, displacement, enslavement, and state terror.”

While a majority of the commission voted to keep the Columbus statue in place, de Blasio also decided that the city will commission a new monument that recognizes the contributions of indigenous peoples, according to CBS. The new statue will likely stand near the 15th-century Italian explorer, which will receive new markers that describe his violent acts against indigenous populations. Notably, the commission includes in its recommendations that the city create an Indigenous Peoples Day, although sentiment was divided on whether it should replace Columbus Day, as many activists have long demanded — and an alternative many other cities have already chosen.

The sidewalk marker that honors PĂ©tain, engraved on the “Canyon of Heroes” on lower Broadway, will also remain, although the commission has recommended adding historical context to the plaque.

Only the statue of Sims will be relocated, from its site in Central Park to the grounds of Greenwood Cemetery, where the doctor is buried. The commission recommended that it be placed there without its pedestal, with an explanatory plaque informing the public on the monument’s origins, as well as information on the legacy of nonconsensual medical experimentation on women of color. The report also called for the addition of the names of three women — Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey — on whom Sims experimented, as well as their histories.

“Especially in its current location, the Sims monument has come to represent a legacy of oppressive and abusive practices on bodies that were seen as subjugated, subordinate, and exploitable in service to his fame,” the report reads. “To confront this legacy in accordance with the principle of Historical understanding, the Commission feels that the City must take significant action to reframe the narrative presented in the monument.”

The sculpture of Sims stood on its pedestal for nearly 35 years, across from the New York Academy of Medicine. To replace it, the vast majority of members of de Blasio’s task force have recommended that the city commission new work that reflects issues raised by the gynecologist’s legacy. An example they provide is that the city issue a call for names of prominent women of color in science and medicine, and commission new monuments to these women.

The full report can be read on the City of New York’s website.

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