Discovering the Limitations of Statues

Author: Rebecca Corrente

New York Times

August 18, 2017

By Gail Collins, Op-Ed Columnist

I believe I have an answer to our statue problem.

There are two ways to look at what happened this week in Charlottesville, Va. One is as a crisis over racism, anti-Semitism and violence. The other is as a crisis over the removal of Robert E. Lee on a horse. We know where our president went. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” wrote Donald Trump.

Sure, a different president — oh God, for a different president — would have had a larger vision. But for the moment let’s think small and focus on the statue. The nation has around 700 public memorials to the Confederacy, and most people would say that’s more than plenty. But getting rid of statues, any statues, has become very difficult. “They become sacrosanct once they’re erected,” said Kirk Savage, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who’s an expert on the subject. “It’s as if the monuments had been dropped from the sky.”

Pittsburgh, for instance, has a truly awful 100-year-old statue of Stephen Foster, the composer of “My Old Kentucky Home,” looking down in white benevolence on what was commissioned to be “an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo.” But city officials haven’t been able to make it go away.

Here in New York we have the problem of Dr. J. Marion Sims in Central Park. Sims is known as the father of American gynecological medicine, and he pioneered a surgical procedure to repair tears that some women suffer during childbirth.

It wasn’t until fairly recently that people living around the statue learned that the way he had perfected his technique was by experimenting without anesthesia on slave women. The city is wrestling with that one, aware that it’s managed to get rid of only one statue in modern history — Civic Virtue, a fountain depicting a large naked man standing (virtue) astride vanquished female figures representing vice and corruption. (A politician named — yes! — Anthony Weiner held a press conference demanding that it be evicted.)

There have always been ways of getting around the problem of unwanted statuary. Erika Doss, a professor in the American studies department at Notre Dame, pointed out that when the American revolution began New Yorkers pulled down a memorial to King George III in Bowling Green. It shouldn’t be all that difficult, she said. “Memorials and monuments have a life span, not unlike the human body. They’re symbols at certain moments. Values change, histories change.”

But these are sensitive times, and we could use a more efficient way to cycle out the pieces that have overstayed their welcome. Suppose they just had expiration dates? Every 20 years, a statue would come up for renewal. A commission could hold hearings, take public comment and then issue a decision. Evictees could go off to a new life at museums or private collections.

It would be a good way to get rid of the huge overrepresentation of military men. When I walk my dog in the morning, I almost always run into the Civil War general Franz Sigel, sitting on a horse looking out over Riverside Park. Actually, the neighborhood only knows about the horse, since our view is mainly equine derrière.

And we could whittle down the politicians. A little later I pass Samuel Tilden, who was governor of New York in the 1870s and an unsuccessful candidate for president. The statue was built from the estate of, um, Samuel Tilden.

Both men were fine Americans, and you wouldn’t want to disrespect them. But if they had due dates it might be possible to give somebody new a turn. We’ve never, for instance, had a statue of Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black city teacher whose refusal to get off a white-only trolley car in 1854 led to the legal integration of New York City mass transit a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat.

Didn’t even know about Graham, did you? But maybe you would if she had a statue.

Trump, of course, just likes white guys on horses. “The beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced,” he moaned in a Robert E. Lee tweet.

Future generations are never going to see a bronze version of Trump astride his mount. Besides the detail of being perhaps the worst occupant of the White House in American history, our president doesn’t ride. He did once buy a racehorse named Alibi. One of Trump’s former executives has claimed that the colt had to have part of his hooves amputated when his owner forced him to be exercised over the trainer’s objections.

Trump denies this. But if we had more room for new statues, concerned citizens might want to put up some money to erect one of Alibi, limping.

Article originally published in The Opinion Section of the New York Times online here on August 18, 2017.  A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 19, 2017, on Page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Discovering The Limitations Of Statues.