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Theodore Roosevelt statue removed from outside New York’s Museum of Natural History

A statue of Theodore Roosevelt was removed from outside New York's Museum of Natural History on Jan. 20. (Video: Reuters)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story quoted Theodore Roosevelt IV as saying there were lessons to be learned from “difficult, complex, and inclusive discussions” about the statue’s future. That quote was from Theodore Roosevelt V. This story has been corrected.

A statue of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, was removed overnight Wednesday from its spot outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The towering bronze statue depicts Roosevelt riding a horse, as two nameless African and Native American men flank him on foot.

It has provoked strong debate in the city, as many criticized the apparent subservience of the pair to the White man in the center — calling the scene a symbol of racism and colonialism.

“The statue was meant to celebrate Theodore Roosevelt … as a devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history,” the museum website has said about the removal. “At the same time, the statue itself communicates a racial hierarchy that the Museum and members of the public have long found disturbing.”

Roosevelt’s father was one of the founders of the museum. The “Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt” was commissioned in 1925 and designed by James Earle Fraser. It has stood on the steps outside the museum since 1940.

In June 2020, the museum announced it had the permission of New York City — along with the blessing of Roosevelt’s namesake descendent — to remove the statue.

Statues have become lightning rods for passionate public debate over whom the United States chooses to honor in its public spaces and how it seeks to record its history.

The push to remove statues gained momentum in the United States and elsewhere following the racial reckoning and Black Lives Matter protests that came after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Theodore Roosevelt statue, flanked by African and Native American men, to be removed in New York

Former New York mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said in June 2020 it was “the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue” because it “explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior.” President Donald Trump called the decision “ridiculous” on Twitter at the time and urged authorities not to remove it.

The museum’s decision was also approved a year later by the New York City Public Design Commission. New York City owns the statue and the property on which it was built. The museum also created its own exhibit to address the questions and criticism surrounding the statue.

The Roosevelt statue will be on long-term loan to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library due to open in 2026, in North Dakota, where Roosevelt spent time in the Badlands. The presidential library was termed “a fitting new home” by New York City officials when the decision was made last year, noting it could be “appropriately contextualized” there.

Library trustees agreed the statue was “problematic in its composition” and said in a statement they would be establishing an advisory council comprising representatives from Indigenous and Black communities, historians, scholars, and artists to determine next steps.

The president’s descendent Theodore Roosevelt V has welcomed the decision to remove the statue and said in a statement that there were lessons to be learned from “difficult, complex, and inclusive discussions” about its future.

Thomas Jefferson statue removed from New York City Hall after complaints that it honored an enslaver

Statues of Confederate leaders, Christopher Columbus, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have been set ablaze, vandalized or torn down by protesters in some places. In 2017, the Roosevelt statue itself was doused in red paint by a group called the “theodo Removal Brigade,” which said the statue represented “patriarchy, white supremacy and settler-colonialism.”

A monument of Jefferson was removed from New York City Hall last year after officials voted unanimously to banish it from the council chambers over the former president’s history as a enslaver. In D.C., a debate continues to grow over calls for the removal of the Emancipation Memorial featuring Abraham Lincoln, which sits in Lincoln Park, steps away from the U.S. Capitol.

Roosevelt was president from 1901 to 1909. He was the first president to invite an African American, Booker T. Washington, to dine at the White House, and he pushed for a “square deal” for people of all races and classes, supporting unions while cracking down on monopolies. Yet he also believed in the superiority of White, Western culture and supported the eugenics movement.

Before becoming president, Roosevelt wrote enthusiastically of conquering the “squalid savages” on the Western frontier in his 1889 book, “The Winning of the West.” Even some of his supporters concede that not unlike the country he led, Roosevelt had a complicated and at times troubling history.