New York hid a statue of Theodore Roosevelt accused of being racist

Workers remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt installed in front of the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York since 1940 (REUTERS / Caitlin Ochs)

One of the most controversial statues in New York City, that of former President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) riding a horse above a black and an indigenous, has just left the majestic façade of the Natural History Museum these last few days, putting an end to yet another debate on the memory that the city owes to some of its heroes.

The statue, which She had been locked up on some scaffolding covered with cloth for several months., was finally dismantled at night since last Tuesday, as confirmed by a museum spokesman to EFE, which explained that the process was “carried out with specialists in historical conservation” and that it will culminate in a comprehensive restoration of the square where it stood, facing Central Park.

Its final destination will be the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota, and although this institution will not open until 2026, the pressure to remove the statue became unsustainable, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement., which sparked a national debate on public symbols and literally toppled a multitude of sculptures, from Christopher Columbus to Confederate generals.

The museum proposed to remove the monument after the objections of some considering it a symbol of colonialism (REUTERS / Caitlin Ochs)
The museum proposed to remove the monument after the objections of some considering it a symbol of colonialism (REUTERS / Caitlin Ochs)

THE WHITE, THE BLACK AND THE INDIGENOUS

The controversial statue, erected in 1940, showed Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by two figures on foot below him: a feathered and caped Indian and a naked black man, both anonymous, simply representing their respective races.

“The statue itself conveys a message of racial hierarchy that the museum and members of the public have found disturbing,” recently recognized the museum, a place that in 2018 had more than 4 million visitors.

“It is the narrative of a man who tames: he tames the horse, but he also tames the Native American and the black African,” said Mabel Wilson, professor of African Studies at Columbia University, in a video produced by the same museum.

New Yorkers walk in front of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where the statue of Roosevelt was hidden and later removed (REUTERS / Carlo Allegri)
New Yorkers walk in front of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where the statue of Roosevelt was hidden and later removed (REUTERS / Carlo Allegri)

The Mayor’s Office of New York had already launched a debate in 2017 on the most controversial statues in the city, and it was then that the museum produced an exhibition entitled “Let’s talk about the statue” and that video where historians of both trends gave their opinion on the advisability of suppressing the sculpture or leaving it as a witness of an era.

Finally, and during these last four years, the museum placed a plaque under the statue where, in a difficult exercise in political correctness, it was said that in that sculpture “some see a heroic group; others, a symbol of racial hierarchy.” Some of the latter vandalized the statue with paint on several occasions.

File photo: Passers-by stop to look at the statue of Theodore Roosevelt following the announcement that it will be removed amid anti-racism protests across the United States, on June 22, 2020 (REUTERS/Mike Segar)
File photo: Passers-by stop to look at the statue of Theodore Roosevelt following the announcement that it will be removed amid anti-racism protests across the United States, on June 22, 2020 (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

A VERY DEAR RACIST

Teddy Roosevelt, as he was popularly known, always appears within the group of “the best presidents of the United States”, either by popular consideration or by historians, and in fact he is one of the four fathers of the country, along with Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose busts are carved in giant size into the rock of Mount Rushmore.

To him are due, among other things, the creation of national parks in the United States and the promotion of a conservationist policy that explains why it was his image that presided over the Museum of Natural History, famous for its dinosaur skeletons, its animals stuffed savages and their planetarium.

In the imposing statue, commissioned in 1925 from artist James Earle Fraser, Roosevelt is on a horse flanked by a man of African descent and a Native American (REUTERS / Mike Segar)
In the imposing statue, commissioned in 1925 from artist James Earle Fraser, Roosevelt is on a horse flanked by a man of African descent and a Native American (REUTERS / Mike Segar)

But an impetuous personality like Roosevelt was also a convinced racist, author of phrases inconceivable today. Of the American Indians he said: “I’m not going to say that the good Indian is the dead Indian, but I think that would be true for nine out of ten, and I wouldn’t ask much about the tenth. The most depraved cowboy has more moral height than the average Indian.

Of blacks he wrote that “as a race as a whole, they are inferior to whites” and he told a senator that “most of the blacks in the south are unfit for the ballot box” and giving them the right to vote “would lower parts of the south to the level of Haiti.”

It cannot be said that the statue did not fully reflect the man that Roosevelt was, but in 2022 that image became untenable.

“The statue itself conveys a message of racial hierarchy that the museum and members of the public have found disturbing,” reported the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, New York (EFE / EPA / Peter Foley)

The museum ultimately chose to remove the statue but pledged in its message that its former location “remain the site of the official memorial to Theodore Roosevelt.”

In the place where the statue was, today a frieze runs through the empty square. On the frieze you can still read this description of that president: Statesman – Author – Historian – Humanitarian – Soldier – Patriot.

By Javier Otazu (EFE)

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