Beyond Sims: Knocking White Supremacy Off Its Pedestal

Beyond Sims: Artist Selection Panel

An Historic Moment

The East Harlem community was pleased to learn that Mayor Bill de Blasio had (finally) agreed with their seven-year call for the removal of the J. Marion Sims statue from its location on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

But, rather than abolishing the theme of a white southern doctor who experimented on enslaved Black women without anesthesia or informed consent, the city has chosen to keep the Sims pedestal (and signage) in place with new language added “to provide context” for his work. This is an unacceptable insult to the East Harlem community—one which has robbed us of the possibility of creating an entirely new, more empowering, artistic vision for the site.

According to a January 12 press release, the City will “relocate the statue to Green-Wood Cemetery and take several additional steps to inform the public of the origin of the statue and historical context, including the legacy of non-consensual medical experimentation on women of color broadly and Black women specifically that Sims has come to symbolize. These additional steps include: add informational plaques both to the relocated statue and existing pedestal to explain the origin of the statue, commission new artwork with public input that reflects issues raised by Sims legacy, and partner with a community organization to promote in-depth public dialogues on the history of non-consensual medical experimentation of people of color, particularly women.”

The placatory “move” comes in the wake of a public debate surrounding the removal of symbols of white supremacy. Although certainly not new, the topic did gain significant national media attention on June 27, 2015 when activist Bree Newsome removed the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse—10 days after the murder of nine black parishioners in Charleston by self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof.

Coalition to remove the J. Marion Sims StatueCommunity activists and legislators across the country stepped up their efforts even further after August 12, 2017 when James Fields Jr.—a white neo-Nazi protesting the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia—drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more.

While addressing the Charlottesville protests, Columbia, South Carolina Mayor Steve Benjamin also singled out J. Marion Sims. “I believe there are some statues on our state capitol I find wholly offensive,” he said. “The most offensive statue wasn’t a soldier, it’s J. Marion Sims, who’s considered the father of modern gynecology who tortured slave women and children for years as he developed his treatments for gynecology.”

The issue had thus broadened to the point where local opposition to symbols of white supremacy could no longer be dismissed as a matter of censorship or removing “art” for content—which had been the previous administration’s position. Mayor de Blasio then responded to the growing controversy—which included older protests against monuments to Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henri Philippe Pétain—by announcing the formation of an Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers in August 2017.

Not surprisingly, no further public action was taken by the administration until after the general election. In mid-November 2017, the Mayor’s Commission held hearings throughout the city—during which thousands presented testimonies on monuments to Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henri Philippe Pétain. Although the debates were often contentious—with dozens of anti-racist activists, progressive educators, and radical artists sounding off against conservative historians, “traditionalists,” and even members of the NYPD and FDNY—not a single person testified in defense the Sims statue.

Monumental Error

In January, 2018, the Commission presented a Report to the City of New York with recommendations. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Mayor de Blasio then announced that only the Sims statue would be moved. The symbolic “move” was seen as a slap in the face by many who had for years maintained that the statue’s presence did a huge disservice to the neighborhood’s majority Black and Latino residents—groups that have historically been subjected to medical experiments without permission or regard for their well-being.

Although we are grateful for the Mayor’s gesture, we are also displeased that the wishes of over 20,000 petitioners, activists, and legislators who strongly objected to the monument’s presence our neighborhood have not been fully acknowledged. New York City should not be keeping White Supremacy on any pedestal—and certainly not in this community.

Dr. Sims is not our hero, and we don’t need any reminders of his barbarities. We bear the pain and burden of intergenerational trauma every day. There are many African American and Puerto Rican women (and men) who have made great medical and scientific contributions that have benefited the East Harlem community—Dra. Helen Rodriguez-Trias and Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, to name a few. These are the s/heroes residents would prefer to have children learn about as they stroll in Central Park, confident in the understanding that Black Lives Matter.

Nonetheless, we will take this opportunity to continue the dialogue on racism and violence against women of color that East Harlem Preservation helped initiate. We congratulate everyone involved in this effort and invite them to join us in calling for a new artistic vision for the site. Footnote City Limits recently published an editorial by New York Academy of Medicine President Dr. Judith Salerno, wherein she “wishes that energy could also be channeled into improving care for struggling women today.” As latecomers to the campaign to remove the Sims statue, Dr. Salerno and the New York Academy of Medicine practically missed the movement altogether so it’s not surprising that they are unaware that the majority of women involved in our effort are already doing incredible work around reproductive justice for women of color. Dr. Salerno and the New York Academy of Medicine would have known this had they supported the campaign from the beginning rather than at the very end. Speaking of top-down, any idea when the statue will be removed? The city is ignoring us, once again. Perhaps City Limits or the New York Academy of Medicine can get Mayor de Blasio on the phone for us so we can (continue to) “effect real change?” J. Marion Sims: ‘Savior of women’ or medical monster?

J. Marion Sims: Keeping: Manteniendo la supremacía blanca en su pedestal

Estamos encantados de saber que la ciudad de Nueva York ha aceptado nuestra petición de que se quite la estatua de J. Marion Sims—un médico blanco del sur que experimentó con mujeres negras esclavizadas sin anestesia ni consentimiento informado. Pero, en lugar de reutilizar el sitio, el pedestal se mantendrá con un nuevo lenguaje agregado a la placa para “proporcionar contexto” para su trabajo. Este es un insulto inaceptable para nuestra comunidad; uno que nos ha robado la posibilidad de crear una visión artística completamente nueva y más positivo para el sitio. Desde 2010, East Harlem Preservation ha trabajado para eliminar el monumento. Nuestra iniciativa fue inspirada por la activista Viola Plummer, quien comenzó a llamar la atención sobre los crueles experimentos de Sims poco después de la publicación del libro de Harriet Washington “Medical Apartheid” en 2006. A lo largo de nuestra campaña, mantuvimos que la presencia de la estatua perjudicó enormemente a la mayoría de los residentes negros y latinos del vecindario, grupos que históricamente han sido sometidos a experimentos médicos sin permiso ni consideración por su bienestar. Aunque estamos agradecidos por el gesto simbólico del alcalde, también estamos disgustados porque los deseos de más de 20,000 peticionarios, activistas y legisladores que objetaron fuertemente la presencia del monumento en nuestro vecindario no han sido completamente reconocidos. La ciudad de Nueva York no debería mantener la supremacía blanca en ningún pedestal, y ciertamente ninguno en esta comunidad. No obstante, aprovecharemos esta oportunidad para continuar el diálogo sobre el racismo y la violencia contra las mujeres de color que ayudamos a iniciar. Felicitamos a todos los involucrados en este esfuerzo e invitamos a unirse a nosotros para pedir una nueva visión artística para el sitio. El Dr. Sims no es nuestro héroe, y no necesitamos ningún recordatorio de sus barbaridades. Soportamos el dolor y la carga del trauma inter-generacional todos los días. Hay muchas mujeres (y hombres) afroamericanos y puertorriqueños que han hecho grandes contribuciones médicas y científicas que han beneficiado a la comunidad de East Harlem-Dra. Helen Rodríguez-Trías y la Dra. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, por ejemplo. Estas son las heroínas que nos gustaría que aprendieran nuestros niños mientras caminan cerca de Central Park, confiados en el entendimiento de que nuestras vidas son importantes.

J. Marion Sims: Keeping White Supremacy on Its Pedestal


In 2010, East Harlem Preservation began its campaign to remove the monument honoring Sims—a white southern doctor who experimented on enslaved Black women without anesthesia or informed consent. The initiative was inspired by activist Viola Plummer—who had begun calling attention to Sims’ cruel experiments soon after the publication of Harriet A. Washington’s book “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” in 2006.

Former East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito joined the campaign in February 2011 and wrote a letter asking the Parks Department to remove the statue, which she described as “a constant reminder of the cruelty endured by women of color in our country’s history.”

The NYC Parks Department refused to honor the request, claiming that “the city does not remove ‘art’ for content”—a ridiculous argument given the fact that the precedent was set when the Sims statue was removed from Bryant Park in 1934 to make way for “thematic changes.”

In early 2016, the NYC Parks Department offered to install a plaque beneath the Sims statue that would “honor” three of the women who were subjected to his unnecessarily barbaric experiments—Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy. Community Board 11 rejected the plaque and in June 2016 called for the removal of the statue, a decision which was wholeheartedly supported.

In September 2016, East Harlem Preservation partnered with artists from the Laundromat Project’s Harlem cohort at a speak-out in solidarity with the reproductive rights of women of color. The event was held in front of the Sims statue, where speakers and artists honored their ancestors and condemned the continued assault on Black and Latina female bodies.

In February 2017, East Harlem Preservation held a panel discussion on the Sims statue with Medical Apartheid author Harriet Washington; Dr. Lynn Roberts, reproductive justice scholar activist and Assistant Professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy; and Diane Collier, Chair of East Harlem’s Community Board 11. The program was broadcast over Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

On August 17, 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of an Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers co-chaired by the President of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, and the NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Tom Finkelpearl. convened to advise the Mayor on issues surrounding public art and historic monuments and markers on City-owned property.

Former NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito then wrote a letter to Mayor de Blasio asking that the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims be included in the 90-day review that the City conducted on symbols of hate on city property.

On August 19, 2017, members of Black Youth Project 100 held a powerful action in front of the Sims statue challenging the presence of such symbols of oppression and white supremacy. Vandal spray-paints ‘racist’ on Central Park statue of doctor who experimented on slaves On August 25, 2017, unknown person(s) took matters into their own hands—spray-painting the word “racist” on the back of the statue and splattering red paint on the eyes, presumably to symbolize the torture Sims inflicted on his victims.

On September 27, 2017, Dimiti Kadiev, a traveling artist affiliated with the Catholic Worker movement, painted a portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in front of the Sims statue and urged Mayor de Blasio to replace it with a monument honoring African American women.

Council members Inez Barron, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and other legislators then partnered with East Harlem Preservation, Community Board 11, and others to form the “Coalition to Remove the Dr. Sims Statue: Reclaiming Reproductive Rights of Women of Color”.

In November, 2017, the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers held public hearings throughout the city, during which thousands sounded off on monuments to Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, Henri Philippe Pétain, and others. Although the debate was rather contentious during discussions about the Columbus and Roosevelt statues, not a single person testified in defense the Sims statue.

In January, 2018, the Commission presented a Report to the City of New York with recommendations for general policy and specific existing monuments. Mayor de Blasio then announced that only the Sims statue would be moved.

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