Schools are reopening across the country. Are you a social studies or history teacher? Involve your students in a research, discussion, and advocacy project evaluating statues, markers, and street names in your community and making recommendations to public officials.
On Twitter an outraged Donald Trump called it “foolish” to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from public displayed. Yet Lee and Jackson were U.S. army officers who violated their pledge to defend the nation and the United States Constitution against enemies. During the Civil War they resigned their commissions and fought for slavery and the Confederacy. Lee and Jackson were traitors and remain symbols of racism and injustice.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were two great waves of Confederate statue building in the South that were both part of racist, white supremacist movements. The first building boom was between 1890 and 1915 and coincided with the consolidation of Jim Crow segregation laws. The second wave of construction was between 1955 and 1965 and was part of White opposition to the African American Civil Rights movement.
In Washington DC, there are statues on display in the Capitol building commemorating Lee, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens. Before supporting insurrection Davis was a Congressman, Senator, and Cabinet member. Stephens also served in the House of Representatives. Following recent events in Charlottesville, the President of Bronx Community College announced that the busts of “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee would be removed from the Hall of Fame for Great Americans on the college’s campus in New York City.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is establishing a commission to conduct a 90-day review of “all symbols of hate on city property,” including racists and anti-Semites. Sidewalk markers in downtown Manhattan honor two World War II era Nazi collaborators, Henri Phillipe Petain and Pierre Laval. New York City’s Congressional delegation is also demanding that military officials rename streets at the Fort Hamilton army base in in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn that are named for Confederate generals Jackson and Lee. The army has refused, but a bill was introduced in Congress by Representative Yvette Clarke to force the changes.
Where others see racism, Donald Trump sees an assault on American traditions. On tweet he wrote “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” Trump also charged that monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, founders of the nation that were both slaveholders, would be next.
Despite their contributions to the creation of the new nation, Washington and Jefferson should both be held up to scrutiny. During the American Revolution, Washington refused to offer freedom to enslaved Africans who fought for independence. While he was President of the United States and the national capital was in Philadelphia, Washington rotated slaves back-and-forth to his Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia so they would not be emancipated under local laws. Jefferson kept his own children by an enslaved African mistress enslaved during his lifetime.
The George Washington Educational Campus houses high schools in Manhattan. The Thomas Jefferson high school campus is in Brooklyn. Students should be involved in discussion of whether the names of these schools, as well as schools named after other slaveholding national leaders or racists, including James Madison, James Monroe, Francis Lewis, Samuel Tilden, and Andrew Jackson should be changed. Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of New Amsterdam, was the largest private slaveholder in the Dutch colony and an avowed anti-Semite. One of the top public high schools in the city, as well as neighborhoods and housing developments, are named after him.
A scale needs to be developed to evaluate which monuments are taken down and which place names are changed. I suggest the following criteria ranked from low-to-high: Complicity; Benefited; Advocated; and Criminal.
Criminals, including traitors, should definitely be stripped of honors, as well as advocates of hatred. If people and institutions that benefited from slavery or hatred or just looked the other way are included we would have to rename the entire city and many of its best-known landmarks. Madison Square Garden is named after James Madison, a President and slaveholder. The naming rights to the ballpark where the Mets play, Citi Field, and the arena the Nets and Islanders call home, are both held by banks that helped finance the trans-Atlantic slave trade. New York City and state are both named after James, the Duke of York, who headed the British Royal African Company, the leading slave-traders in the 17th and 18th centuries.
These are some of my recommendations to the de Blasio commission for statues and place names of people I should definitely be removed or changed because they spewed hate and their behavior often reached the level of criminality. At a minimum, new plaques should be placed on statues explaining who these people really were and their contributions to the history of racism, a history that continues to plague the United States.
1. Anything named after Andrew Jackson. There are Jackson streets in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, and a Jackson Square in Manhattan. Jackson Heights and Jackson Avenue in Queens were definitely named after a different Jackson, however there is an Andrew Jackson school, PS 24, in Flushing and an Old Hickory Park in Long Island City. Not only was Andrew Jackson a slaveholder, but he openly advocated and committed genocide against native Americans. There is also a bust of Jackson in the Hall of Fame on the campus of Bronx Community College.
2. Central Park Statue of Dr. James Marion Sims. There is a statue of Sims on the outside wall of Central Park near 103rd Street. Sims is honored as a founder of gynecology and for establishing a Woman’s Hospital and a Cancer Hospital, which is now the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. However, between 1845 and 1849, Sims performed experimental gynecological operations on countless enslaved African women in the American south including over 34 operations on a single woman without the benefit of anesthesia or any type of antiseptic. Many of the women he experimented on died from infection. By honoring Sims, New York City honors the American equivalent of the notorious Nazi concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele. The Mayor of Columbia South Carolina, Steve Benjamin, has demanded that a bust of Sims be removed from that State’s Capitol grounds for the same reasons-.
3. John Mullaly Park in the Bronx. At a Union Square rally on May 19, 1863, Mullaly declared the Civil War to be “wicked, cruel and unnecessary, and carried on solely to benefit the negroes, and advised resistance to conscription if ever the attempt should be made to enforce the law.” As editor of he Metropolitan Record, Mullaly’s call for armed resistance to the military draft led to his arrest following the July 1863 New York City Draft riots. Over one hundred people died and at least nineteen Black men were beaten to death or lynched by rioters in the worst urban unrest in the United States during the 19th century.
4. Central Park Statue of Samuel F. B. Morse. A statue of Morse, an American painter and inventor, is located at the entrance of Inventor’s Gate on the east side of Central Park near 72nd Street. Morse is shown standing next to his best-known invention and holding a strip of Morse Code. Morse was an advocate for slavery and an opponent of emancipation. In his diaries he wrote: “Slavery . . . is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom.” There is also a bust of Morse in the Hall of Fame on the campus of Bronx Community College.
5. Statue of Samuel Cox in Tompkins Square. In the southwest corner of Tompkins Square Park is a statue of Congressman Samuel Sullivan Cox. Cox was first elected to Congress in 1856 as a Democrat from Ohio. He was defeated for reelection in the Lincoln Republican Party sweep of 1864 and relocated in New York City. Between 1868 and 1889, Cox represented Tammany Hall in Congress. In Congress, Cox argued that the United States was made for white men only. “I have been taught in the history of this country that these Commonwealths and this Union were made for white men; that this Government is a Government of white men; that the men who made it never intended, by any thing they did, to place the black race on an equality with the white.” In 1865, Cox was one of 56 Congressional representatives who voted against the 13th amendment to end slavery.
6. Last week, in her column “Discovering the Limitations of Statues,” Gail Collins recommended that the statue of Samuel Tilden in Riverside Park be removed as past its “expiration date.” There is even more to the story to support its removal. At the start of the Civil War Tilden wanted compromise with the South that would permit the continuation of slavery. In 1863, he joined New York Governor Horatio Seymour promoting resistance to the military draft that to rioting rioting and the lynching of Blacks in the streets of New York. City. In 1864 Tilden helped publish anti-emancipation material including openly racist pamphlets. After the war he opposed Black suffrage and supported returning the South to control by White-only governments. There is also a Fort Tilden that needs renaming on Rockaway peninsula in Queens.
Sims murdered in the name of science. Mullaly was indicted for inciting an anti-war, anti-draft, anti-Black riot. Jackson should have been indicted multiple times and would be today. The behavior of all three qualifies as criminal. Morse and Cox were avowed racists who sought to undermine the nation during civil war. While their actions may not reach the threshold for criminality, they clearly added and abetted treasonous behavior. Tilden is tricky because as a lawyer he usually operated behind the scenes representing the reprehensible. On balance, I think this statute needs to go too.
Washington, Jefferson, and Stuyvesant all benefited financially and politically from slavery but are not remembered as outspoken advocates. I would vote to let their monuments remain, but I want to see national discussion and new plaques that acknowledge their connection to slavery and in Stuyvesant’s case, anti-Semitism. And after over 350 years, I would let New York City and state keep their names.
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Rethinking Christopher Columbus? Oberlin, Ohio plans to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Lancaster, Pennsylvania is debating taking down it Christopher Columbus statue. New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito wants to remove the Columbus monument at the southwest corner of Central Park across from the Trump International Hotel and rename Columbus Circle. I welcome the discussion but I tend toward leaving Columbus statues, markers, and names in place. Five hundred and twenty-five years ago Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic transformed the world. The Columbian Exchange that followed led to the migration of millions of people, both enslaved and free, the exchange of countless products as well as diseases, the financing of the Industrial Revolution, and essentially the creation of one integrated world. Mark-Viverito was born in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican culture and people are the result of the Columbian Exchange. Out of greed and hubris, Columbus committed heinous crimes against the native population of the Caribbean and that must be recognized in markers, books, and school curriculum. But we cannot understand the world we leave in today, with all of its achievements and injustices, without recognizing the role played by Christopher Columbus.