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Jefferson Statue May Be Removed After More Than 100 Years at City Hall

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 …

Jefferson Statue May Be Removed After More Than 100 Years at City Hall

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.

The statue has stood by for generations of policy debates, thousands of bills passed and a city budget that has soared to roughly $100 billion. It has also withstood another test of time: Two decades ago, a call to banish the statue gained attention, but went nowhere.

But as the country continues the slow and painful process of determining who deserves to be memorialized in shared public spaces, the removal of the Jefferson statue is receiving far more serious consideration.

The statue made its debut at City Hall in the 1830s, and was moved to the Council chamber eight decades later.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

The Public Design Commission is expected on Monday to vote on and likely approve a long-term loan of the statue to the New-York Historical Society, after the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus requested that the statue be removed.

The vote 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.

Though Jefferson, one of the nation’s founding fathers, wrote about equality in the Declaration of Independence, he enslaved more than 600 people and fathered six children with one of them, Sally Hemings.

“How the hell can people see as a hero someone who had hundreds of enslaved Africans, someone who was a racist and who said we were inferior and someone who was a slaveholding pedophile?” said Assemblyman Charles Barron, the former councilman who tried to get the statue removed in 2001. “For him to be canonized in a statue is incredible — incredibly racist.”

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 described its likely move to the New-York Historical Society, where she serves as a trustee, as the 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.

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 plaque on Lower Broadway honoring Philippe Pétain, a French World War I hero who later collaborated with Nazis, would be one of the first to be removed, the mayor said at the time.

Mr. de Blasio backtracked after his plans for a full review were criticized, and announced a commission that would instead create guidelines for reviewing historical markers. The mayor’s commission elected to keep the Pétain plaque, as well as a monument to Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle — accompanied by a sign that provided context about Columbus. The sign has not been added.

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 Jefferson statue has survived several attempted removals over the last two decades. But in 2019, the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus tried again, writing to Corey Johnson, the council speaker, that the statue should be removed because it “symbolizes the disgusting and racist basis on which America was founded.”

The following year, after the murder of Mr. Floyd by the police prompted the largest protest movement in U.S. history, Mr. Johnson and the caucus took the request to the mayor, calling the statue “a constant reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country.”

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.”

Mr. de Blasio, speaking at a news conference last week after The New York Post reported that the statue was likely to be removed, described Jefferson as a “complex” historical figure who helped to create “good and strong and vibrant values” for America.

The mayor, who appoints a majority of the design commission, stressed that the push to remove the statue was initiated by Mr. Johnson and the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, whose members make up almost half of the 51-person Council.

“The thing that is so troubling to people is that even someone who understood so deeply the values of freedom and human dignity, and the value of each life, was still a slave owner,” the mayor said.

The leaders of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus saw the issue with less equivocation.

“I don’t expect to go into City Hall and see representations of such an oppressive past to so many people,” said I. Daneek Miller, a councilman from Queens and a co-chairman of the caucus. “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”

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.

A study of about 50,000 American monuments released last month by the research studio Monument Lab found that of the 50 people represented most frequently, nearly all were white men and half were slave owners. The organization’s director, Paul M. Farber, said that a nationwide reconsideration is underway.

“These decisions are not always about a statue, but really about how power is practiced through public memory and monuments,” Mr. Farber said.

If the statue is moved, curators at the New-York Historical Society intend to present it in a historical context that illuminates the “principal contradiction of our founding ideals” and the “lived experience of many founding Americans, including Jefferson,” said Louise Mirrer, the organization’s president and chief executive.

The initial loan period for the statue, which is in good condition after a recent renovation, would last 10 years and could be extended. The society already has a sword that belonged to Levy in its collection.

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

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