Oct. 14, 2021 By Max Parrott
Several Queens legislators have called on a city panel tasked with overseeing public art and architecture to vote to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson in the City Council chambers as a form of reckoning with his legacy as a slaveholder.
The 11-member city Public Design Commission will hold a public hearing Monday in which it will decide whether to relocate the statue from its prominent location in the Council’s side of City Hall.
Ahead of the vote, the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, chaired by Queens Councilmembers Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica) and I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) sent out a statement asking the commission to put an end to the statue’s presence in City Hall. The caucus also includes Francisco Moya (D-Elmhurst) who is a vice co-chair.
“Our caucus has stood at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the real history of America — whether reflected in words or symbols — is truly genuine to all those who lived it,” members of the caucus wrote.
The statement continued to call for “the individuals memorialized within the confines of our People’s House [to] be reflective not only of the best traditions of our city’s history and its diversity but unquestionable character.”
Though criticism of the statue’s presence stretches back to the early 2000’s, the push gained momentum in June 2020, when Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio calling for its removal in the midst of the protests over George Floyd’s death.
In the letter, the speaker said the statue is “inappropriate and serves as a constant reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country.”
Johnson’s opinion of the statue is not shared by all councilmembers. Councilman Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) told the Daily News that he was against removing one of the nation’s Founding Fathers from the chambers.
The Design Commission will ultimately decide its fate.
Adams told the Queens Post that she had not heard where the members of the Design Commission stood on the issue, but was optimistic that they will listen to the wishes of the caucus and speaker. She added that she would like to see a woman of color represented in the statue’s place, suggesting abolitionists like Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth or civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer.
“It would mean dignity as we go about doing the business of the people in the people’s house as Black people whose ancestors suffered at the hands of slaveholders,” Adams said.
The Jefferson statue at city hall is a copy of the statue by French sculptor Pierre-Jean David d’Angers that stands in the Capitol rotunda of the U.S. Congress. The New York statue was presented to the city in 1834 by naval commander Uriah Philips Levy.
Controversy materialized around it in 2001 when then-Councilmember Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) said that it should be replaced with an image of Malcolm X, calling Jefferson “a pedophile” who “raped his slave Sally Hemings.”
Two decades later, the removal of the statue from the Council chambers would represent another step in the city’s effort to confront racism in the context of the nation’s historical figures.
“The true history behind Thomas Jefferson is good and bad. The good stuff is there — it’s always been there, but we need to tell the whole history if we’re going to celebrate monuments and statues,” Adams said, suggesting that the history of African Americans in U.S. history does not get memorialized enough.
Members of the public can sign up to testify at the Design Commission’s public hearing at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAI