A statue of President Theodore Roosevelt, on horseback and flanked by an African man on his left and a Native American man on his right, has stood at the entrance of New York City's American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) since 1940, but on Sunday, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and nationwide protests against racism, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that it would at last come down.
The removal came at the request of the museum, which also released a statement asking for the statue’s removal, reports Robin Pogrebin for the New York Times. It comes amid a nationwide push to remove public works honoring Confederate leaders, including incidents of some protesters taking matters into their own hands by vandalizing or pulling down memorials themselves.
“Over the last few weeks, our museum community has been profoundly moved by the ever-widening movement for racial justice that has emerged after the killing of George Floyd,” Ellen V. Futter, the president of the AMNH, tells the Times. “We have watched as the attention of the world and the country has increasingly turned to statues as powerful and hurtful symbols of systemic racism. […] Simply put, the time has come to move it.”
“The statue was meant to celebrate Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) as a devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history,” the museum says in its statement. “At the same time, the statue itself communicates a racial hierarchy that the Museum and members of the public have long found disturbing.” The two men on either side of Roosevelt were meant to represent the continents where he hunted, but as Futter adds in her interview with the Times, the statue’s hierarchical composition also reflects a racist ideology that prizes white, Western culture above others.
Roosevelt served as 26th President of the United States, from 1901 to 1909. An avid conservationist and big game hunter, he is perhaps best known for his environmental legacy: He expanded the National Parks System and established 150 national forests, five national parks and 51 federal bird reserves, according to the U. S. Department of the Interior. After his presidency, Roosevelt with his son Kermit mounted an East African big game expedition to hunt and collect hundreds of scientific specimens for the Smithsonian Institution collections, including a white rhino, which today is exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History. Roosevelt’s father was one of the founders of AMNH, and many halls in the New York City museum bear the Roosevelt name.
The sculpture was the subject of a 2019 video “The Meaning of a Monument: Perspectives on the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt,” produced by the AMNH and featuring a number of prominent scholars including Andrew Ross, Mabel O. Wilson and Douglas Brinkley. “Here was Theodore Roosevelt, great American figure, stalwart, riding on his horse. I mean he’s holding the horse, it’s reined,” says Wilson, who served on a city commission that considered whether or not to remove the statue in 2017.
“It always to me seemed like a narrative of domestication. Like the horse has been tamed, the Native American, the indigenous populations had been tamed. The conquest of the African continent was also about sort of taming the savage, right? The savage beast,” Wilson continues. “And that was the narrative that was communicated to me.”
“The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior,” the Mayor’s office says in a statement to CNN. “The city supports the museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.”
Kate Clarke Lemay and Taína Caragol of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery are at work on an upcoming 2023 exhibition on U.S. expansionism and the Spanish American War—the period of Roosevelt's ascendency. Known as Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, the bronze sculpture in question has been “contested by activists for almost 50 years,” say the curators. Commissioned by the Roosevelt Memorial Association in the 1930s and designed by James Earle Fraser in close collaboration with the architect John Russell Pope, the sculpture, according to Fraser, was meant to celebrate Roosevelt's deep interests in natural history and “his friendliness to all the races.”
“From our perspective, one could not be more delusional in thinking of Roosevelt as a proponent of racial equity. Roosevelt quit his job as assistant secretary of the navy and assembled the Rough Riders, who famously fought in the Cuban Campaign. Leading a badly calculated charge up San Juan Hill, Roosevelt later refused to give credit to the African American soldiers whose gallantry, as historian Clay Risen has illustrated, won the otherwise disastrous [battle.] Roosevelt wrote in his memoir that black soldiers were only effective when led by white officers,” say the curators.
Roosevelt believed in white superiority and vocally supported eugenics, including the belief that the poor, criminals and “feeble-minded persons” should be sterilized, Tim Stanley reported for History Today in 2012. He once said that if Anglo-Saxons did not produce large families, they would commit “race suicide,” according to the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia.
His conservation efforts also came at the expense of some Native American tribes, according to the AMNH. “Conservationism gave us our national park system and Roosevelt’s probably best remembered for that. Most people don't know that a lot of these national parks were made possible by the evacuation of indigenous populations,” says Ross in the AMNH video.
Some activists have also pointed to Roosevelt’s role in the Spanish-American War as another reason why the statue should come down. A noted imperialist, his actions during the war helped pave the way for American colonies in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines, according to the Times. His role as one of the masterminds of the Spanish-American War reveals his thirst for political power and the political domination of the United States abroad, say curators Lemay and Caragol, adding that Roosevelt's quest for power was “veiled under the pretext of helping Cuba win its War of Independence against Spain.”
Decades of protest seemed to come to a head in 2017, when activists splattered red paint on the base of the statue. In a protest statement reported at the time by Claire Voon for Hyperallergic, the group declared their action was not an act of vandalism. “The true damage lies with patriarchy, white supremacy, and settler-colonialism embodied by the statue,” said the protesters.
The statue's removal will now be subject to review by Mayor deBlasio's commission on racial justice and reconciliation.