New York

Controversial Columbus Statue Will Stay, City Says

What to Know

  • Controversy swirled around a Christopher Columbus statue and other monuments in New York in the wake of protests last summer
  • De Blasio formed a commission to review the statues and monuments to controversial figures, among them a doctor who experimented on slaves
  • In general, the commission recommended keeping monuments but building plaques and new monuments to add historical context

A city commission has decided to keep a controversial statue of Christopher Columbus that towers over Columbus Circle, officials announced Thursday.

The statue of Columbus will stay but informational plaques about the explorer's life will be added and a monument to indigenous people will be built nearby, officials said. 

Critics of Columbus and the statue honoring him said the Italian explorer was a murderous colonizer who exploited Native Americans and others, while those defending Columbus accused critics of attempting to hastily whitewash history.

Harlem leaders and residents have demanded for years that the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, considered the father of modern gynecology, be taken down in Central Park — and now they say their call has gotten a boost from Charlottesville. Andrew Siff reports.

In a statement, Mayor de Blasio said thousands of New Yorkers got involved in the process after he ordered a commission -- The Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers -- to conduct a 90-day review of “symbols of hate” on city property, including the statue of Columbus.

In a statement announcing the decision, de Blasio appeared to strike a balance, saying “reckoning with our collective histories is a complicated undertaking with no easy solution.”

“Our approach will focus on adding detail and nuance to – instead of removing entirely – the representations of these histories,” de Blasio’s statement said. “And we’ll be taking a hard look at who has been left out and seeing where we can add new work to ensure our public spaces reflect the diversity and values of our great city.”

The statue was part of a nationwide debate about controversial statues that followed clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, over a monument honoring Robert E. Lee. Some monuments were defaced -- and one of Columbus in Yonkers was beheaded -- over the summer. Meanwhile, Columbus Day parade-goers showed their support for the monuments to the explorer. 

Steps are being taken to remove Confederate memorials and symbols that are still standing. Katherine Creag reports.

In a 40-page report (read in full below), the commission made recommendations on specific actions for four monuments and markers on city property, including the Columbus Circle statue.

The commission recommended moving the controversial statue of J. Marion Sims, currently in Central Park, to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The commission suggested taking steps to explain the legacy of Sims, who is considered the father of modern gynecology but who has been condemned for experimenting on enslaved black women without anesthesia. City Hall sources told NBC 4 New York that out of the thousands of surveys and responses submitted to the commission, not one asked to keep the statue of Sims.

The monument also recommended keeping the Broadway "Canyon of Heroes" plaque to Philippe Petain, a World War I hero later convicted of treason for heading the collaborationist Vichy government in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. The commission says the city should keep the plaque and all other markers in place but "explore opportunities to add context such as wayfinding, on-site signage, and historical information about the people for whom parades were held." 

A fourth monument, that of Theodore Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History, was also weighed in on by the commission, which suggested keeping the monument in place and partnering with the museum to provide additional context on-site through signage and education programming. Critics have said the monument, which depicts a heroic Roosevelt on horseback towering over Native American and African people, as depicting a racial hierarchy.

Read the full report here:

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