Roosevelt’s statue removed amid national debate on race

The statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt sitting in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York was removed last week. In a country ridden with racial conflict, will the fall of monuments whitewash American history? 

Wikimedia Commons (edwardhblake)

By Catalina Haberman – 11th grade

Perched on a horse along Central Park West in Manhattan, atop a flight of concrete stairs, sits former President Theodore Roosevelt, greeting people as they arrive at a place to understand more about their history. James Earle Fraser was the artist who brought the historical landmark to life in 1939, and it may be fair to say he was not aware of the controversy it would cause decades later. What is most notable about the sculpture, and what is said to have caused dispute to begin with, is the fact that Roosevelt is not alone with his horse; on both sides of him stand an African man and a Native American man. This choice made by Fraser has come to symbolize systemic racism to some, as well as the painful legacy of colonial expansion throughout the United States. As most artists do, Fraser announced this piece be open to interpretation, however he did state that racial inclusivity in the U.S. was what primarily inspired him.   

A Time of Great Racial Tension 

The statue was removed on the 20th of January, 2022. Following the tragic death of George Floyd, when all eyes were following the incessant truths of racial injustice, numerous statues all over the country found to be linked to systemic racism were taken down. Powerful, racially motivated protests are what pushed state governments to take such action, such as the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statues in both Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia. More than 90 other Confederate monuments have been sequestered over the course of the last two years, but many remain in place due to strong resistance from those who support their symbolism. 

The “hierarchical composition” of Fraser’s equestrian landmark that has become well known throughout New York City is at the root of the decision regarding its removal. As the rest of the country has continued to reconsider the past, the Museum of Natural History concluded that the time had come to relocate the statue. What is so remarkable about this particular case is that the monument was located in an area that had previously advocated for the preservation of such relics, defending the idea that they exist to educate. 

The Statue’s Origins

This statue was originally meant to represent Roosevelt’s devotion to preserving the environment as well as other aspects of natural history; his father was the museum’s founder and the family has since served on its board until recently. Fraser also wanted to represent the assistance to Roosevelt provided by Native and African Americans with the discovery and exploration of the American West. The fact that the museum initiated the removal first, without being influenced by any protests surrounding this specific statue, has caused great controversy among those with differing opinions. Former Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, supported the request on behalf of the city of New York. “The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior. The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.”

The Essential Question

While Roosevelt undeniably had his flaws and exhibited them openly, the ongoing philosophical conundrum is whether or not a statue such as this should be removed due to the interpretation of some as well as the current heightened awareness of racial inequality. Is it fair to overlook the positive contributions from an important figure in American history in order to begin a reconciliation of this country’s racial inequities? Racism is without a doubt a prominent, never ending global issue that must continue to be addressed. We as a society have made great advances in our education concerning historical events, including the ability to decipher right from wrong. However, in order to maintain recognition of what came before us it would seem monuments like this would serve to further cultivate our knowledge and that of generations to come. 

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