Members of the city’s Public Design Commission voted unanimously last month to remove the statue from council chambers in City Hall by the end of 2021. The decades-long push to get rid of the statue of Jefferson, described by one Democratic member of the State Assembly as “a slaveholding pedophile,” gained traction last year among the city council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide racial reckoning that unfolded.
“Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who owned over 600 human beings,” council member Adrienne Adams, co-chair of the caucus, said during an October meeting. “It makes me deeply uncomfortable knowing that we sit in the presence of a statue that pays homage to a slaveholder who fundamentally believed that people who look like me were inherently inferior, lacked intelligence and were not worthy of freedom or rights.”
The move met criticism Tuesday from some GOP lawmakers such as U.S. Reps. Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Dan Crenshaw (Tex.) and other conservatives who pointed to past comments from President Donald Trump predicting that statues of Jefferson would be targeted like monuments to Confederate leaders.
The removal of Jefferson’s statue highlights a contentious debate about racialized oppression playing out in communities nationwide as people continue to reevaluate the historical figures they honor in public places.
While Jefferson has largely been spared, statues honoring Confederate figures such as Gen. Robert E. Lee have been removed nationwide in cities and on college campuses. More than 140 Confederate monuments have been removed from public land since the Charleston, S.C., church shooting in 2015, and about two-thirds of those came down in 2020 in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. Yet more than 700 Confederate monuments remained at the end of last year, along with hundreds of names on roads, schools, parks and the like.
Though Jefferson is celebrated as one of the most important people in the creation of the United States, the rosy picture of his legacy has been complicated in recent years as people have brought other parts of Jefferson’s life to the forefront. Jefferson, an enslaver for his entire adult life who wrote that Whites were inherently superior to Blacks, started the sexual relationship with Hemings while she was in her teens and he was in his 40s.
The New York statue, a reproduction of the bronze sculpture created by Pierre-Jean David d’Angers that stands in the U.S. Capitol, has been in the city council chambers since 1915.
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D) spearheaded the most recent effort to get rid of the Jefferson statue. In the summer of 2020, Johnson wrote to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), telling the mayor that he and other city council members — including the co-chairs of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus — found its presence in the council chambers “inappropriate.”
“There are disturbing images of divisiveness and racism in our City that need to be revisited immediately,” Johnson wrote in the letter. “That starts with City Hall.”
Adams said at last month’s commission meeting that Jefferson “compared the very idea of freeing enslaved people from captivity to abandoning children.” De Blasio acknowledged in October why the Jefferson statue’s presence at City Hall “profoundly bothers people and why they find it’s something that can’t be ignored.”
On Oct. 18, the Public Design Commission voted unanimously to remove the statue from the chambers in a move decades in the making.
The vote angered some local Republicans, who said it was an attempt to “sideline history.” Others posted clips on Twitter of Trump responding to calls for statues in Charlottesville of Lee and rebel Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to be taken down following the deadly Unite the Right rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017.
“I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” Trump said at an August 2017 news conference. “You do really have to ask yourself, ‘Where does it stop?’”
He added, “[Jefferson] was a major enslaver.”
It’s not the first time a site honoring Jefferson has faced scrutiny. In September 2020, a committee reporting to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) called to “remove, relocate or contextualize” the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. The city doesn’t have the authority to make such decisions about federal property, and Bowser’s administration ultimately removed the recommendations from a report.
The debate in D.C. led historians — including a Jefferson expert — to say that teaching people the full story of American forebears is appropriate.
“Contextualizing these monuments makes perfect sense,” historian and Jefferson biographer Annette Gordon-Reed told The Washington Post at the time. “Removal, particularly of the Washington [Monument] and Jefferson Memorials, does not make sense, given the formative role they both played in the founding of the United States.”
Some historians, such as author Kevin M. Levin, pushed back on the criticisms of conservatives regarding the Jefferson statue removal.
“The question of where to draw the line when it comes to the removal or relocation of monuments and statues ignores the fact that no line exists,” he tweeted. “You may believe that a line can be drawn between monuments and statues that honor Confederate military and political leaders and those that honor ‘Founding Fathers’ like Thomas Jefferson, but that line exists for you and others who happen to agree with you only.”