New York City council members call on Bill de Blasio to remove Thomas Jefferson statue
by Madison Dibble
Several New York City council members demanded Mayor Bill de Blasio to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from city property over his ties to slavery.
Speaker Corey Johnson and four other members of the city council, including two leaders of the Black, Latino, and Asian caucus, Adrienne Adams and I. Daneek Miller, penned a letter to de Blasio asking him to remove the statue of Jefferson from City Hall.
“In the last few weeks, New Yorkers have called on all of us in elected office to make bold change so that communities of color feel heard, protected and represented. … There are disturbing images of divisiveness and racism in our City that need to be revisited immediately. That starts with City Hall,” the members wrote in the letter.
“The statue of Thomas Jefferson in the City Council Chambers is inappropriate and serves as a constant reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country. It must be removed,” they wrote. “Jefferson is America’s most noted slave holder, a man who owned more than 600 Black women and men and a scholar who maintained that Blacks were inferior to whites.”
Jefferson was a Founding Father who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and later became the nation’s third president. He also had hundreds of slaves over his lifetime.
He is commemorated in a statue within the city council chambers, and Councilwoman Debi Rose, a Democrat, told the New York Post that Jefferson’s actions did not live up to his words.
“His words are ‘all men are created equal,’ but they were not matched by his action, which included the ability to sell, buy, mortgage, and lease human beings,” Rose said. “He believed black people to be racially inferior, said black Americans and white Americans could not live peacefully side by side, and he fathered as many as six children with a woman he enslaved.”
“I believe the New York City Council should neither ignore nor glorify this dark side of American history,” she added.
Not every council member was on board with the calls to remove Jefferson’s statue. There was a backlash from members of both parties against removing the statue.
“I was totally appalled when I heard that and ashamed to be a council member in that moment. At this point, you can go after any historical figure, it seems,” said Councilman Robert Holden, a Democrat. “Yes, we have blemishes in our past, and I can understand wanting to remove Confederate generals’ statues. But where does it end?”
Councilman Joe Borelli, a Republican, agreed with Holden. He compared the removal of historical statues to the removal of art by many authoritarian governments.
“Someone should explain to me which civilization that banned or destroyed art has ever been considered liberal and progressive,” Borelli said. “ISIS? The Communists? The Jacobins? Henry VIII? Who, tell me.”
City policy mandates that the mayor and the Public Design Commission must both sign off on any changes to the statues in City Hall. De Blasio was sent the letter about Jefferson’s statue on Thursday, and it is not clear what he will decide to do. Calls to remove Jefferson’s statue started as early as 2001 when Councilman Charles Barron, a Democrat, called Jefferson a “pedophile” and demanded that his statue be removed.
Calls to remove statues, paintings, or traditions honoring historical figures have been reignited following weeks of protests against racial injustice and police brutality following the death of George Floyd. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died on Memorial Day after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes despite his pleas for air.