Women’s Caucus Follow-up Questions Regarding the Replacement of the Sims Statue
April 17, 2019
Hon. Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation
The Arsenal, Central Park
830 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10065
Hon. Tom Finkelpearl
New York City Department of Cultural Affairs
31 Chambers Street
New York, New York 10007
Dear Commissioners Silver and Finkelpearl:
We write with follow-up questions regarding testimony provided at the joint oversight hearings with the Committees on Parks & Recreation, Cultural Affairs, Libraries & International Intergroup Relations and Women that took place on February 25, 2019, Oversight: Improving the Gender and Cultural Diversity of Monuments Located in City Parks.
Based on testimony submitted by Kendal Henry, Director of the Percent for Art program, it is our understanding that the East Harlem community has been engaged in a process to commission new permanent public artwork at the former site of a bronze statue of J. Marion Sims, which was perched on a large granite pedestal located along the perimeter of Central Park on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street. As such, we would appreciate it if you could provide further clarity on the following:
1. Why was the pedestal or — at the very least — the language that was on the pedestal not removed with the statue? Who is responsible for allowing it to stay?
On Monday, April 16, 2018, the New York City Public Design Commission (PDC) voted to remove the statue, and on Tuesday, April 17, 2018, it was taken down and loaded onto a Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) truck to be relocated. However, the pedestal, which includes language honoring Sims remains to this day.
The language that remains on the left side of the still-standing pedestal identifies Sims as a “SURGEON & PHILANTHROPIST FOUNDER OF THE WOMAN’S HOSPITAL STATE OF NEW YORK” and goes on to say that “HIS BRILLIANT ACHIEVEMENT CARRIED THE FAME OF AMERICAN SURGERY THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE WORLD.” On the right side of the still-standing pedestal, the pedestal reads, “IN RECOGNITION OF HIS SERVICES IN THE CAUSE OF SCIENCE & MANKIND. AWARDED HIGHEST HONORS BY HIS COUNTRYMEN & DECORATIONS FROM THE GOVERNMENTS OF BELGIUM, FRANCE, ITALY, SPAIN & PORTUGAL.”
This language should be removed immediately. Whether it be that the entire pedestal is demolished or sandblasted to efface the etched stone, the current language cannot remain. While the statue itself was removed, this language — which may be seen and read by anyone in the area — continues to honor a man who made his medical achievements by experimenting on nearly a half dozen enslaved Black women and at least one Irish immigrant woman, without anesthesia or their consent, during the period of slavery in the U.S.
Moreover, the DPR sign which has been affixed to the still-standing pedestal explains that the statue has been relocated to the cemetery where Sims is buried and, “[p]lans are being developed to commission a new monument on this site.” No further explanation is provided. Following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call for a review of “symbols of hate” on City property last year, the Sims monument was the only one singled out for removal and it would seem logical to give it more attention. We would like to know how the language on the DPR sign came about. Who is responsible for signing-off on language that does not provide context?
2. How can the information on the plaque be reflective to include the efforts of those who advocated for the removal of the statue?
Context is important in this instance. Sims’ legacy is part of a lengthy history of Black peoples’ bodies being used to advance medicine in the United States. Though Sims has been known as the “Father of Gynecology” and many of the tools and surgical techniques he pioneered are still in use, he is not an uncomplicated figure. Sims would not have made such advances in medicine without the institution of slavery, which perpetuated racist ideology and forced the availability of Black women’s bodies.
As long as the language and the still-standing pedestal remain, it is only appropriate that the City provide historical context concerning the removal of the statue, and this is only pending the removal or modification of the still-standing pedestal. Additionally, there should be language acknowledging the activism and work of those community leaders, activists, and elected officials who have called for the Sims monument’s removal for at least a decade.
3. Tell us more about the process and logistics. In what ways has DCLA and DPR engaged the community to ensure that residents, community leaders, and elected officials are abreast on the latest developments of the removal and replacement process? Have presentations been made to Community Boards 9, 10 and 11? Additionally, how much funding has been allocated to support community engagement?
While we understand that funding was allocated for the commissioning of the statue and its maintenance, we would like to know if any funding has been allocated to engage the community and ensure that there is a groundswell of awareness or a process to determine the new monument or artwork and the artist.
Additionally, we understand the Committee to Empower Voices for Healing and Equity was established last year and has held several meetings. We would like to know if there are minutes that have been maintained and a list of who serves on this committee.
4. Describe the selection process to identify an artwork/statue and artist. Why does the process to replace the Sims statue differ from the She Built NYC process?
Based on your testimony, the process to identify and select an artist began Saturday, Feb 23rd. However, there is no understanding of what the monument will be and what is expected in the space. This is very confusing. It would seem as though the community should be engaged in a process that would identify the artwork or statue and that the next phase would be to then engage the community to identify an artist based on the work to be created, similar to the She Built NYC process.
On January 12, Mayor de Blasio himself admitted that, “[r]eckoning with our collective histories is a complicated undertaking with no easy solution,” and he promised that “[o]ur approach will focus on adding detail and nuance to — instead of removing entirely — the representations of these histories.” These processes, and details matter, and it is important that we make sure that the processes are inclusive and transparent. We must do all we can to get this right. We do not need a process that is rushed to meet deadlines. The horrors perpetrated by J. Marion Sims on enslaved African women still linger and we want this process to culminate in healing to those communities and populations most affected. The voice of this community matters. It must be respected!
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your reply.