After a 90-day review of the “symbols of hate on New York City property,” Mayor Bill de Blasio has decided to remove just one monument: a statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a gynecologist who experimented on black female slaves without anesthesia because he believed that “black women didn’t feel pain.”
First gifted from the Academy of Medicine in 18TK, the granite relic has been in its location at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street since 1934. The statue won’t disappear from the public’s sight entirely, however. Instead, it will be relegated to the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where his body resides. Coincidentally, the graveyard is also the resting place of Susan McKinney Steward, the first African-American woman in New York State to earn a medical degree. (In 1881, she co-founded the Brooklyn Women’s Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary in Clinton Hill, which offered treatment to female patients regardless of race.)
In a statement on statue’s remove, the Mayor said: “Reckoning with our collective histories is a complicated undertaking with no easy solution. Our approach will focus on adding detail and nuance to – instead of removing entirely—the representations of these histories.”
The city decided against moving any other statues, although it has created five-point scale to guide decisions regarding controversial monuments. The handy rubric ranges from “no action” up to “removal” and includes, for the politically weak of heart, compromises such as “contextualization” and “temporary installation.”
The report was commissioned in the wake of the Charlottesville riots, this past summer, which was spurred by calls to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from that city’s “Emancipation Park.” The report claims such “flashpoints” as the impetus for the survey. (It should be noted that said that the Charlottesville flashpoint led to the murder of an anti-racist counter-protester by a 20-year-old neo-Nazi.) “As weather-beaten statues became flashpoints for fresh conflicts this past year, we saw that considering what and whom we choose to honor in public spaces is not a purely academic matter—it’s something very much alive in our public debates.”
New York-based activists and East Harlem residents have long been calling for the removal of the Sims statue. The city’s first half-measure to remedy the furor over the monument came in 2011 in the form of a contextual plaque. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has also been among the voices calling for the statue’s removal. ““It has got to go,” she told The New York Times when the report was commissioned. “When the panel does its analysis, I think they will come to the same conclusion.”
The report also suggests city officials should be “proactive in adding representations of overlooked histories to its collection and its storytelling.” In response, the Department of Cultural Affairs will commit up to $10 million over the next four years to create new permanent artwork honoring underrepresented communities.
Meanwhile, the city’s monuments of Christopher Columbus and Nazi collaborator Henri Philippe Petain remain unmoved.