I have been writing and speaking about the movement to remove statues that range from confederate leaders to Columbus to Supreme Court justices to Founders (here and here and here and here). I specifically wrote about the call for the removal of monuments to George Washington and others as the list lengthens of figures to be cleansed from public historical displays. In a particularly concerning development, hundreds of professors have now joined this movement in signing a letter calling for New York City to remove monuments honoring Theodore Roosevelt and Christopher Columbus. The open letter to New York’s Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers declares such historical figures as representing “white supremacy” and “objects of popular resentment.” The letter is an embarrassment for higher education as these academics adopt over-simplified and ahistorical approaches to this controversy.
The scholars state:
As scholars of American art, cultural history and social analysis, we are writing to urge that the Commission recommend the removal of several monuments from public view in New York City. They have long been highlighted as objects of popular resentment among communities of color and anti-racist scholars, artists, and movements. It is thus no surprise that these monuments have risen to the top of the list of the “symbols of hate,” to quote Mayor de Blasio, singled out during the Commission’s recent public hearings. For too long, they have generated harm and offense as expressions of white supremacy. These monuments are an affront in a city whose elected officials preach tolerance and equity.
It is important to note that they are speaking of Teddy Roosevelt and Columbus. The attack on Roosevelt is illustrative of the simplistic treatment given the history of the period:
As an imperialist, and frank advocate of eugenics, Roosevelt’s views on racial hierarchy are well-known to historians. The Museum (center of the American eugenics movement in the early years of the twentieth century) now pays tribute to his conservationist efforts, without acknowledging the link to those racialist beliefs. The dedication of the Museum’s memorial in 1936 and of the adjoining equestrian monument in 1939 was celebrated by its officials as a consummation of the theories of Henry Fairfield Osborn, who had presided over the institution’s early growth at the same time as he championed eugenics within and without.
Roosevelt was indeed expansionist in his policies and those policies are troubling in many respects. However, he was also a great leader in many other respects, including his leading role in laying the foundations for American conservationism.
I may be naive in believing that academics are joined by a deep intellectual commitment to history and objectivity. However, to see professors joining this blind rage against historical figures is truly depressing. The letter simply sweeps too broadly in seeking the removal of such memorials.
What do you think?