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Historians Raise Concerns Over Central Park’s Suffragist Monument

“If Sojourner Truth is added,” the letter reads, “it could obscure the substantial differences between white and black suffrage activists, and would be misleading.”

Sojourner Truth (via Wikimedia Commons)

Attempts to appease critics of Central Park’s forthcoming permanent monument to women’s suffrage may have unintentionally backfired.

For almost a year, scholars have accused Monumental Women’s Statue Fund (the nonprofit funding the sculpture) of whitewashing history by spotlighting the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony without paying equal tribute to the many women of color who contributed to the movement. Last week, the group said that the statue would now include Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist best-known for her rousing “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech first delivered at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.

“Our goal has always been to honor the diverse women in history who fought for equality and justice and who dedicated their lives to fight for Women’s Rights,” said Pam Elam, president of the Statue Fund, in a statement. “It is fitting that Anthony, Stanton, and Truth stand together in this statue as they often did in life.”

But not everyone agrees with the Statue Fund’s angle on history. More than 20 leading academics have signed onto a letter asking that the public art process involving the monument become more transparent and inclusive.

“If Sojourner Truth is added in a manner that simply shows her working together with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Stanton’s home, it could obscure the substantial differences between white and black suffrage activists, and would be misleading,” reads parts of the note. “While Truth did stay at Stanton’s home for one week to attend the May 1867 meeting of the Equal Rights Association, there isn’t evidence that they planned or worked together there as a group of three.”

Todd Fine, president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, organized the letter with Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society. Signatories include Leslie Podel, creator of “The Sojourner Truth Project,” as well as professors from universities including Yale, Columbia, and Brown.

Over email, Fine told Hyperallergic that the group had significant historical concerns about the monument that coincided with a question as to why new designs for the statue were not released alongside the announcement. Although the nonprofit has apparently submitted their new proposal to the Public Design Commission, both organizations have declined to provide an image of it. Fine said that he hopes there will be dialogue and outreach before the altered design is presented after a decision is rendered.

Signatories expressed that their letter — addressed to Elam and Coline Jenkins, a vice president of the nonprofit and one of Stanton’s great-great-granddaughters — shouldn’t be seen as an attack but as a nudge toward better results given the delicate matter at hand.

“We believe that there may be elegant ways to memorialize the full scope of the suffrage movement to incorporate these challenging differences, but they will require careful consideration, explicitly including black community voices and scholars of this history,” reads the end of the letter. “We ask that you not rush this process, and certainly not rashly propose another design. Without careful consideration, your decisions might repeat the mistakes that led to these circumstances.”

The entire letter is published below:

Dear Pam Elam and Coline Jenkins,

As civic activists in New York City’s public history community and as scholars of race and of women’s suffrage, we request that the redesign of the suffrage monument in Central Park be a transparent, inclusive, and carefully-considered process.

Given your goal to celebrate the centennial year of the nineteenth amendment and given the substantial public funding you are receiving, we commend your organization for changing its thematic scope to consider black figures whose work was often marginalized or maligned by white suffrage leaders. Yet, if the proposed solution is to adapt the proposed monument to include Sojourner Truth, it is critical that you now include the voices whose critique culminated in the decision to redesign.

If Sojourner Truth is added in a manner that simply shows her working together with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Stanton’s home, it could obscure the substantial differences between white and black suffrage activists, and would be misleading. While Truth did stay at Stanton’s home for one week to attend the May 1867 meeting of the Equal Rights Association, there isn’t evidence that they planned or worked together there as a group of three. Additionally, even at that time, Stanton and Anthony’s overall rhetoric comparing black men’s suffrage to female suffrage treated black intelligence and capability in a manner that Truth opposed. May 1867 was a single moment in time, and this moment, purportedly depicted in the redesign, ignores the historical context of the struggle over the fifteenth amendment. Subsequently, the activists’ statements and actions diverged fundamentally. We must also stress that Sojourner was a unique individual who spoke her own words; she did not read words written by others.

We believe that there may be elegant ways to memorialize the full scope of the suffrage movement to incorporate these challenging differences, but they will require careful consideration, explicitly including black community voices and scholars of this history. It is unlikely that there will be multiple opportunities to create a public monument to Sojourner Truth, and, if your proposed solution is necessary, this one chance to honor her legacy deserves careful consideration with broad input.

We ask that you not rush this process, and certainly not rashly propose another design. Without careful consideration, your decisions might repeat the mistakes that led to these circumstances.

Sincerely,
Jacob Morris
Director, Harlem Historical Society

Kim F. Hall
Lucyle Hook Professor of English and Professor of Africana Studies, Barnard College, Columbia University

Jennifer L. Morgan
Professor of History, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and Department of History, New York University

Daina Ramey Berry
Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin

Matthew Guterl
Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies, Brown University

Leslie Podell
Creator of “The Sojourner Truth Project,” www.thesojournertruthproject.com

Daphne A. Brooks
Professor of African American Studies, Yale University

Sarah Ohmer
Assistant Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies, CUNY-Lehman College

Matthew Frye Jacobson
Professor of American Studies and History, Yale University

Julie Livingston
Silver Professor of History and of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University

Kirt H. Wilson
Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State University, and President of Rhetoric Society of America

Celia E. Naylor
Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History, Barnard College, Columbia University

Traci Parker
Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Maira Liriano
Associate Chief Librarian, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Lisa M. Gill
University Lecturer, Department of African/African American Studies

Bridgett Pride
Research Librarian, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Justin M. De Senso
Lecturer of English and African American Studies, Penn State Berks

Tsitsi Jaji
Associate Professor of English and African & African American Studies, Duke University

Irene Silverblatt
Professor Emeritus, Cultural Anthropology and History, Duke University

Todd Fine
President, Washington Street Advocacy Group

Justin Behrend
Professor of History, SUNY Geneseo

Irma Watkins-Owens
Associate Professor Emerita of African and African American Studies, Fordham University

Ebony Coletu
Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies, Penn State University

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