New York City council considers bill to remove statues of people who benefited from slavery

On Tuesday, the New York City Council’s Committee on Civil and Human Rights held its first hearing on a number of bills that are proposed in June. 

One of the bills would "consider the impact of slavery" and "reparations." Another would require anti-racism trainings for city employees. 

But the one getting the most attention concerns public art and school names.  It would establish a process for removing certain works of art that depict someone who, according to the text of the bill, meets one or more of the following criteria:

(a) Participated in or otherwise promoted the trade of enslaved persons;

(b) Received significant economic benefit directly from the institution of slavery, including through owning or insuring enslaved persons or from entities that did so;

(c) Participated in or directly promoted the systemic murder, enslavement, or forcible transfer of indigenous people in the United States or other countries; or

(d) Participated in or otherwise promoted crimes against humanity.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Sreoshy Banerjea, director of the city’s Public Design Commission, testified that there are about 2500 public works of art—indoors and outdoors— spread across the city. 

Councilmember Chi Osse asked her how many of those works of art would meet the criteria listed above. 

"Several," she said, before going a bit further and offering a slight chuckle. "A lot." 

Some of the notable men represented in statues throughout the city who would meet the above criteria include: George Washington, Peter Stuyvesant, and, perhaps most controversial, Christopher Columbus.

The city’s Public Design Commission has played a role in having certain statues removed in the past, as well. 

In 2022, the statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the Museum of Natural History was taken off its pedestal out front.  A Central Park statue of Marion Sims, a doctor who performed experiments on slaves, was relocated to his gravesite. 

But, according to Banerjea, an official proposal to remove the statue of Columbus atop the pedestal in Columbus Circle has never been brought in front of the commission. But, she noted that the commission "would support the increased dialogue" about the particular monument. 

Since the bill is still in its early stages, dialogue is sure to continue. 

At the outset of the hearing, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams took a moment to describe why he believes the bills being considered are important. 

"The issues that we deal with now—black, white, brown— no one is responsible for creating them, but all of us are responsible for what we give the next generation," Williams said.