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NEW YORK — A nearly 200-year-old statue of Thomas Jefferson that’s been a lightning rod for controversy for over two decades will be removed from the the City Council chambers by the end of the year, a design commission ruled Monday.
The Public Design Commission voted unanimously to delay the decision on where the statue should be relocated, but stipulated that no matter where it goes, it should not be in City Hall after the New Year.
“We have a victory,” said Councilwoman Inez Barron (D-Brooklyn), one of several elected officials who pushed for its removal. “I’m very pleased because we’ve achieved our objective.”
The statue of Jefferson, which was moved to the City Council’s chambers in 1915, has been in City Hall since 1834. It is the plaster model for a bronze statue that resides in the U.S. Capital.
The design commission, whose members were appointed by Mayor de Blasio, discussed the issue for nearly two hours Monday, hearing testimony from both supporters of the seven-foot-tall statue’s removal and those who felt it should remain, or be moved to different part of City Hall, because of its historic significance.
The specific proposal the panel considered Monday came from the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, which was pushing for the statue to go to the New-York Historical Society.
But some members of the design panel questioned that piece of the proposal because the Historical Society charges an entrance fee, which would make the publicly owned statue more difficult to view.
“When you’re going to deal with a public piece of art that is owned by the public, it is important to allow access and opportunity and educational components to be part of this,” said Merryl Tisch, a member of the commission who serves as a trustee for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “By tabling it, I was thinking along those lines.”
She suggested that instead of the statue going to the Historical Society, it could be sent to the New York Public Library, the home of a hand-written copy of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
Aside from authoring that key founding document, Jefferson was America’s third president and is renowned for championing equality and religious freedom. But at the same time he owned hundreds of slaves and fathered children with one of them, Sally Hemmings.
It is that troubling part of Jefferson’s past, a piece that has been glossed over for centuries, that Black City Council members who testified Monday focused on most intently.
“As a lawmaker and perhaps more importantly as an African American woman, I cannot help but think of the other part of his legacy — not talked about enough,” said Councilwoman Adrienne Adams (D-Queens). “Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who owned over 600 human beings, African slaves. He reaped the economic benefits of slave labor. He maintained the notion that Black people were inferior to white people.”
Others who testified defended the statue.
Jacob Morris, head of the Harlem Historical Society, said the commission should “remand” the issue to the City Council and not let it “foist” the decision off. He then suggested that the Council would better serve the public if it examined renaming places that honor Christoper Columbus; Boss Tweed, a corrupt city power broker of days past; and Richard Riker, who helped kidnap free blacks and put them into slavery and whose family once owned Rikers Island.
The Department of Education’s headquarters is named for Tweed.
“Now you’re talking about really, unequivocally horrible people,” Morris said.
New York State Assemblyman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn), who first introduced the idea of removing the Jefferson statue in 2001 during his time as a Councilman, didn’t agree. He testified that removing the statue to the Historical Society, or anywhere in public for that matter, is far too generous a fate.
“They should put it in a central place in the Black community and give us all sledgehammers and let us smash it into dust,” said Barron, husband to Councilwoman Barron. “It’s only plaster.”