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New York City to remove Jefferson statue commissioned by Jewish naval officer

Local lawmakers vote to move figure out of city hall, citing slave ownership; man who commissioned statue wanted to honor the US founding father’s promotion of religious freedom

A statue of Thomas Jefferson, right, stands in New York's City Hall Council Chamber, on July 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
A statue of Thomas Jefferson, right, stands in New York's City Hall Council Chamber, on July 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

NEW YORK — New York City lawmakers have voted to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson, one of the United States’ founding fathers, from the council chambers because of his slave-owning past.

The move comes amid fierce debate in the US, following last year’s widespread racial justice protests, over what to do with monuments deemed offensive to minority groups.

Many activists say statues of some historical figures are symbols of systemic racism. Historians tend to argue that the figures themselves were complex and shouldn’t be airbrushed from America’s history.

Latino and Black council members in New York have for years demanded the removal of the seven-foot Jefferson statue, which was commissioned in 1833.

Their push was given impetus by last year’s nationwide racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

City officials voted unanimously on Monday to remove the statue from council chambers, but delayed a decision on where to put it.

The statue is expected to be moved to the New York Historical Society museum.

Jefferson was the main author of the Declaration of Independence, but like many of America’s founding fathers, he owned slaves.

He held more than 600 slaves on his plantation in Virginia and fathered six children with one of them.

The third US president “embodies some of the most shameful parts of our country’s history,” councilwoman Adrienne Adams told the hearing, The New York Times reported.

Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests saw demonstrators topple a number of statues of figures with racist legacies, many of them Confederate generals, colonial figures and slave traders.

The demonstrations also resulted in officials pledging to take down divisive monuments.

Last month, a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee that became a focal point of racial justice protests was removed from Richmond, the Virginia city that served as the capital of the pro-slavery South during the American Civil War.

At the height of the protests in June 2020, New York announced it would remove a statue of former US President Theodore Roosevelt, but the monument remains in place.

The bronze sculpture, which sits outside the American Museum of Natural History, depicts Roosevelt on horseback towering over a black man and a Native American man, who are both on foot.

The Jefferson statue is a plaster model of the bronze statue of him that is on display in the rotunda at the US Capitol building in Washington.

It was commissioned by one of the first Jewish officers in the US Navy to honor Jefferson for introducing legislation that established religious freedom in America’s armed forces.

Raymond Lavertue, a historian at the Rothermere American Institute at Britain’s Oxford University, tweeted that the statue should be moved to another “public space” within city hall.

“It must catalyze people to fulfill ideals that weren’t realized by the person who conceived of them,” he wrote.

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