J Marion Sims: controversial statue taken down but debate still rages

Nadja Sayej
A statue of J Marion Sims before it is driven away after being taken down from its pedestal at Central Park. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the city of New York removed a sculpture of J Marion Sims from Central Park. Workers from the parks department lifted the bronze statue on a forklift, wrapped Sims’ head in a felt blanket and drove him away on a flatbed truck.

While Sims is known as the grandfather of gynecology to some, he is known as a torturer to others. The 19th-century doctor performed experimental surgeries on enslaved black women throughout his career, and chose not to use anesthesia.

The removal of his 80-year-old statue comes after eight years of protests, activism and the local community collecting more than 26,000 signatures, which were brought to the attention of city officials.

New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, agreed to relocate the controversial monument in January, though public protests hit their peak last summer. The city’s Public Design Commission approved the move on Monday and the next day, the statue was removed.

A roaring crowd gathered in Central Park for the removal. Some locals said their “ancestors can rest”, while another held up a sign that read “Believe black women”. In the crowds, it was reported someone hollered: “Off with his head!

“To hail Sims as a hero was inappropriate and out of bounds,” said the deputy borough president of Manhattan, Matthew S Washington, who has been working on the statue’s removal since 2010. “It got to a real boiling point in New York, so we put together a coalition of community members who have continued to stand together and say ‘we no longer stand for this and we are going to fight until it’s gone’.”

Following the controversy around Confederate monuments after a far-right rally last summer, this is one of many statues coming down. But where should it go?

“My opinion is that the statue should be melted down and cast that metal into a statue that Sims brutalized, that would be appropriate,” said Washington. “His podium is still there in Central Park, we think it should be resurfaced as a blank podium, so the work continues.”

One local organization, East Harlem Preservation, has been fighting for the Sims sculpture to be taken down since Viola Plummer, an 81-year-old black activist first called attention to Sims’ torture techniques in 2006, the same year a book about him was published, entitled Medical Apartheid.

“Throughout our campaign, we 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 wellbeing,” said the group’s founder, Marina Ortiz. “Dr Sims is not our hero, and we don’t need any reminders of his barbarities.”

A woman stands beside the empty pedestal where a statue of J Marion Sims was taken down. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ortiz says she would rather see other doctors honored in Central Park who reflect the local community, like the first African-American female physician Dr Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who worked in Boston during the 19th century, and Helen Rodríguez Trías, a Latina pediatrician and women’s rights activist, who died in 2001.

“These are the ‘sheroes’ that residents would prefer to learn about as they stroll near Central Park, confident in the understanding that black lives matter,” she said.

The Sims sculpture has been relocated to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, which is where the doctor is buried. According to the cemetery’s president, Richard J Moylan, the statue was “immediately placed in storage until Green-Wood can construct the historical display that will put Sims’ life and work into context,” he said. “Ultimately, the sculpture will be placed near Sims’ gravesite.”

Moylan intends to make sure Sims’ entire history be told.

“As a national historic landmark, the responsibility to preserve this history, and not to whitewash it, is something Green-Wood takes very seriously,” he said.

But Ortiz and the East Harlem Preservation are not satisfied with the decision to move the statue to Brooklyn. “New York City should not be keeping white supremacy on any pedestal and certainly not in another community of color,” she said. “We humbly suggest that the city bury the statue at Sims’ gravesite if they insist on having it there.”

To JC Hallman, who is writing a book about Sims called The Anarcha Quest: The Story of a Slave and a Surgeon, thinks there is a lot of work to be done. “It’s the first time, and hopefully not the last, that a statue in New York City was removed explicitly because of questions about the content of the monument,” said Hallman. “It paves the way for future efforts to get history right, which is absolutely essential in an era when news and truth itself are under attack.”

Not everyone agrees. Michele Bogart, a professor of art history at the Stony Brook University in New York, says the Sims statue should have stayed in Central Park. “People think that older public sculptures somehow continue to celebrate their subjects, but that doesn’t have to be the case at all, it certainly isn’t for me,” said Bogart. “It’s a problem for everyone right now because all anyone can see is racial divide – which is understandable. But it puts blinders on people.”

People gather to watch the removal of a statue of J Marion Sims. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There are still monuments honoring Sims across the country; one stands in the grounds of the state house in Columbia, South Carolina, which has seen protests for its removal. There is also a building honoring Sims at the department of health and environmental control building on the campus of the University of South Carolina.

The mayor of Columbia, Steve Benjamin, has said he is more offended by the statue of Sims than any Confederate memorial. “It should have come down at some point,” he told MSNBC, explaining that Sims “tortured slave women and children for years as he developed his treatments for gynecology”.

There is also a Sims monument to the entranceway to the Alabama Capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, the same city where Sims had his “backyard Montgomery hospital”, where he experimented surgeries on slave women, one of whom endured 30 surgeries.

While a painting of Sims was removed from the University of Alabama Birmingham in 2006, removing the statue is not possible, as the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017 means anyone tearing down monuments in Alabama could be fined $25,000.

But Michelle Browder, a Montgomery-based educator, doesn’t think the local statue of Sims should be removed. “Take it down for whom, for what – to sanitize the history as if it never happened?” she asks. “If he wasn’t at the Capitol, you would have no reason tell the kids of his heinous acts of crime against black women.”

The solution, she adds, could be one of addition, rather than removal. “I am in favor of erecting a statue beside Sims honoring the mothers of gynecology, to share their contributions to science and medicine that helps all women,” she said. “We want the world to know that black women are stronger than any other race of women.”