Harlem historian: Suffragettes statue is ‘racist’

BY ALEJANDRA O’CONNELL-DOMENECH | Jacob Morris just wants to tell the truth and he wants the city to do the same.

The Harlem-based historian is pushing for a redesign of the forthcoming Central Park monument honoring the women’s suffrage movement. As currently designed, the monument is racist, Morris charges.

Morris has drafted a resolution for Manhattan’s Community Board 11 calling on the City Council, the Mayor, the Public Design Commission and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to suspend all taxpayer money allocated to the monument. That is, until the monument is made to reflect what Morris says is a balanced and accurate depiction of the fight for women’s suffrage that “incorporates the role not just of white women but all women.”

Morris is not a member of C.B. 11.

Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, says the women’s suffrage monument planned for Central Park is racist and must be redesigned.

His resolution also calls for including “a historian on the panel to ensure the optimum functioning of our Public Design Commission,” so that the commission can improve its mission to deepen public knowledge of contributions made by “under-acknowledged peoples to our society and include a ‘Truth in Labeling’ as criteria for approvals.”

The statue would go on the park’s Literary Walk and is currently slated for installation in the summer of 2020. It is being funded with $500,000 from a New York Life Insurance Company Challenge Grant, $100,000 from Borough President Brewer and $35,000 from City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, c0-chairperson of the Council’s Women’s Caucus and chairperson of the Council’s Committee on Women.

The Parks Department announced plans in 2017 for a monument honoring women’s suffrage movement leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and selected sculptor Meredith Bergmann’s proposed design for it. The design features women’s-rights activists Stanton and Anthony working alongside each other at a desk, with a lengthy scroll falling toward an old-fashioned ballot box below them. In honor of the breadth and diversity of the movement, the scroll will be inscribed with names and quotes of other women who took part in the fight for women’s rights.

Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, Ida B. Wells, Anna Howard Shaw, Lucretia Mott, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Alice Paul are some of the women that will be listed.

But the design has received criticism from some historians who believe that it depicts a a slanted and inaccurate history.

“It purports to honor Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as champions of universal women’s suffrage,” said Morris, the director of the Harlem Historical Society. “They were not. They were champions of white women’s suffrage.”

Both and Anthony and Stanton used racist rhetoric and valued the concerns of white Protestant women over those of of black women, as well as black men, and were generally elitist, Morris and others charge.

Meredith Bergmann’s model for her statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, which the city plans to install on Central Park’s Literary Walk next summer. (Courtesy Glenn Castellano/New York-Historical Society)

Morris would support adding more figures to the monument, including Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. But above all, he wants the Public Design Commission to go back to the drawing board and create a monument that is “more inclusive” and “accurately labeled.”

After presenting his case to C.B. 11, including a letter of support from fellow historian David Levering Lewis and articles from historians Martha S. Jones and Nell Irvin Painter, Morris spoke with Deputy Borough President Matthew Washington and Councilmember Rosenthal to air his concerns about the problematic statue.

According to a spokesperson, Rosenthal has no plans to rescind her $35,000 allocation at this time.

“Our office really looks forward to a community process which leads to a statue that celebrates women’s suffrage and the diverse movement that achieved it,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Brewer’s office declined comment for this article.

C.B. 11 is scheduled to vote on Morris’s resolution in September.

10 Responses to Harlem historian: Suffragettes statue is ‘racist’

  1. The "Truth" is not necessarily honored when historical figures who probably had little to do with each other are thoughtlessly lopped on to a distinguished artist's design in order to achieve political correctness. These art directors of history ought to commission Ms. Bergmann to do an additional sculpture of Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells… and how about Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan for the fountain at Washington Square Park!

    • Dear Harry – for you to say that historical figures who probably had little to do with each other are thoughtlessly lopped on to a distinguished artist's design is inherently thoughtless on your part – the key is the LABELLING –
      these two renowned Ladies were clearly Champions of "White Women's Suffage" – NOT UNIVERSAL Suffage –
      which is what this Memorial puports to honor – please learn the full history of the struggle for UNIVERSAL women's equality and the fundamental role that Sojourner Truth and Ida B Wells played in that struggle before you make uniformed comments.

  2. Coline Jenkins

    Frederick Douglass said: When there were few houses in which the black man could have put his head,
    this wooly head of mine, found refuge in the house of Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and if I had been blacker than sixteen midnights, without a single star, it would have been the same. There is no name greater than hers in the matter of woman’s rights and equal rights.

  3. Dear Jacob….If, as you note, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B, Anthony were Champions of "White Woman's Suffrage" and Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells were Champions of "UNIVERSAL Suffrage" wouldn't it be improper to combine all of the figures in one monument, as you seem to be suggesting? As to your point, there should be two separate monuments.

    You are also "LABELLING" a monument honoring two very worthy historical figures who lived more than 100 years ago as "racist." Was their work predominantly racist, in the context of their time, or feminist? Should Meredith Bergmann now destroy her beautiful monument because of the point you wish to make?

    All I can say is that 2020 will mark the centenary of my mother's birth, and I will be pleased to see a new monument, or two new monuments, executed by an acclaimed woman sculptor, in Central Park.

    • When blacks express concerned they are always talked down into shutting up and being quiet. Things haven't changed.

  4. Racism against blacks is part of the American way (and European and Arabian). Doesn't seem that it will ever end. !!

  5. JACOB,

    iT IS NICE HEARING FROM YOU. 227 DUFFIELD STREET (OR AS YOU PREFER ABOLITIONIST PLACE) SEEMS TO BE IN A GREAT DEAL OF TROUBLE. DEVELOPERS ARE THREATENING TO TEAR IT DOWN AND I BELIEVE IT IS THE ONLY KNOWN UNDERGROUND RAILROAD STATION IN BROOKLYN. THERE IS A PETITION GPONG AROUND AND I HOPE YOU CAN SIGN IT.

  6. No doubt true, but dividing people and causing more hatred and distrust is Trump's game for chumps. We need a president who is not teaching racism, and we need to build monuments to people who are better than that.

    Statues made in bronze aren't white and they should shine a light.

  7. Do we really need another expensive and divisive monument? Would it not be more of a tribute to spend the money and effort helping poor and homeless women off the streets. Of what use to them is yet another statue? But, good for the pigeons, I guess.

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