Jefferson Statue Will Be Removed From N.Y.C. Council Chambers

Jefferson Statue Will Be Removed From N.Y.C. Council Chambers 1

After a debate over Jefferson’s legacy and his history as a slaveholder, city officials delayed deciding on where to display the statue.

For more than 100 years, a 7-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson has towered over members of the New York City Council in their chamber at City Hall, a testament to his role as one of the nation’s founding fathers and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.

But for the last two decades, some Black and Latino Council members, citing Jefferson’s history as a slaveholder, called for the statue to be banished — a push that gained significant momentum in the last year, as the nation has broadly reconsidered public monuments that can be viewed as symbols of systemic racism.

On Monday, city officials voted unanimously to remove the statue from Council chambers, but delayed a decision on where to put it.

“There are 700 pieces of art under our jurisdiction, we cannot make a rash decision that will set a precedent for the other 699 pieces of artwork that may also have challenges from people or other groups of people,” Signe Nielsen, president of the Public Design Commission, which oversees art at city-owned property, said at a public hearing before the vote.

The relocation of the statue, requested by the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, was expected to be a fait accompli: An agreement was already in place to relocate the statue to the New-York Historical Society. A crate had been ordered to house the statue during the move.

The society had agreed to present the statue in a historical context that captured Jefferson’s legacy as a founding father, but also as a man who enslaved more than 600 people and fathered six children with one of them, Sally Hemings.

The unexpected delay angered some Black and Latino lawmakers, who had expected the statue to be moved from City Hall because, as the caucus said in a letter to the mayor, it serves as “a constant reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country.”

There have been various attempts to remove the statue; two decades ago, a call to banish the statue gained attention, but went nowhere.

“Jefferson embodies some of the most shameful parts of our country’s history,” Adrienne Adams, a councilwoman from Queens and co-chair of the caucus, said at the hearing.

Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Her co-chair, I. Daneek Miller, a councilman from Queens, called the commission’s decision “elitist” in an interview after the hearing.

Opposition to removing the statue began to surface in recent days: A group of 17 historians sent a letter on Monday to the panel suggesting that the statue stay at City Hall, and simply be relocated to the governor’s room, where it was originally housed for most of the 19th century. A Daily News editorial on Monday also questioned the move, and others spoke against it at the Public Design Commission’s virtual hearing.

“Removal is a very simple solution that will erase the debate,” Raymond Lavertue, a historian at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford, testified on Monday. He urged the panel to keep Jefferson in the “seat of government in a public space.”

Although Jefferson was “massively flawed,” he added, his ideas on equality should “be grappled with daily.”

The debate over the Jefferson statue is part of a broad, nationwide reckoning over racial inequality highlighted by the murder of George Floyd, the racial disparities further revealed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the sometimes violent debate over whether Confederate monuments should be toppled and discarded.

The unanimous decision by the commission to remove the statue from the chamber, but not rule out moving it to another location in City Hall, illustrates the complexity of such debates.

“This is an issue that is not going to be simple to explicate, excavate or decide,” said Commissioner Merryl H. Tisch, who suggested shelving the motion for further research. She later floated the idea of displaying the statue at the New York Public Library, next to a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Some public speakers argued that the statue should remain in the Council chambers, suggesting that its placement there could facilitate the debate over his legacy.

Assemblyman Charles Barron, the former councilman who tried to get the statue removed in 2001, vehemently disagreed.

“I don’t think it should go anywhere. I don’t think it should exist,” Mr. Barron said at the hearing. “I think it should be put in storage or destroyed or whatever.”

The imposing statue, which sits on an almost 5-foot-tall pedestal, is a plaster model of the bronze statue of Jefferson that is on display in the United States Capitol Rotunda in Washington. It was commissioned in 1833 by Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy, to commemorate Jefferson’s advocacy of religious freedom in the armed forces.

The Jefferson statue in Washington, by the celebrated French artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, was dedicated to the American people. The painted plaster version was later donated to New Yorkers and arrived at City Hall around 1834. When it first arrived in New York, Levy charged to view it and used the proceeds to feed the poor. It was installed in the City Council Chamber in the 1910s.

Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard Law School professor and a Jefferson expert, objected to the idea of taking down the Jefferson statue, but said that if it were to move to the New-York Historical Society, where she serves as a trustee, it would be a best-case scenario.

“This represents a lumping together of the Confederates and a member of the founding generation in a way which I think minimizes the crimes and the problems with the Confederacy,” Ms. Gordon-Reed said in an interview.

New York City has long grappled with how to handle monuments depicting divisive historical figures. After a deadly riot by white nationalists in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., which began as a protest over plans to remove a Robert E. Lee statue, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that the city would conduct a review of all “symbols of hate” on city property.

A statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, considered a founder of modern gynecology, was removed in 2018 from Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street because he perfected his procedures on unanesthetized enslaved women. After a tense competition, the city selected Vinnie Bagwell, a Black sculptor, to replace the statue with “Victory Beyond Sims,” a bronze angel holding a flame.

The Public Design Commission voted to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History earlier this year and approved a long-term loan to an unnamed cultural institution, but no further plans have been announced.

The following year, after the murder of Mr. Floyd by the police prompted what may be the largest protest movement in U.S. history, the Council speaker, Corey Johnson, and the caucus renewed the request to move the Jefferson statue.

In a statement, Mr. Johnson said the Historical Society would be able to “responsibly present the story of Thomas Jefferson and this statue with appropriate historical context,” something that is lacking in its “prominent display in the City Council chambers.”

Others, including Mr. de Blasio, who appoints a majority of the design commission, were more guarded. The mayor, who declined last week to take a position on the issue, said through a spokesman after the vote that he respected “the Council’s desire for the change, just as we respect the Public Design Commission’s desire to determine the right location.”

According to experts who track monuments, several other Jefferson statues have been removed or destroyed over the last year, including ones in Georgia and Oregon. Last year, Lucian K. Truscott IV, a direct descendant of Jefferson, wrote in The New York Times that the Jefferson Memorial in Washington should be replaced by a monument of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

Mr. Truscott said at Monday’s hearing that the statue should be removed because he couldn’t imagine what it was like for Black members of the City Council to see the statue when they entered the chamber.

The curators at the New-York Historical Society intended to present the statue on the first floor of their institution in a historical context that illuminates the “principal contradiction of our founding ideals” and the “lived experience of many founding Americans, including Jefferson,” Louise Mirrer, the organization’s president and chief executive, said in an interview.

“We don’t bury history at our institution,” Ms. Mirrer said. “We tell history, and history is tough and it’s filled with contradictions.”