Harlem historian: Suffragettes statue is ‘racist’

Meredith Bergmann’s model for her statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to be installed in Central Park in 2020.

BY ALEJANDRA O’CONNELL-DOMENECH | Jacob Morris just wants to tell the truth and he wants the city to do the same.

The Harlem-based historian is pushing for a redesign of the forthcoming Central Park monument honoring the women’s suffrage movement. As currently designed, the monument is racist, Morris charges.

Morris has drafted a resolution for Manhattan’s Community Board 11 calling on the City Council, the Mayor, the Public Design Commission and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to suspend all taxpayer money allocated to the monument. That is, until the monument is made to reflect what Morris says is a balanced and accurate depiction of the fight for women’s suffrage that “incorporates the role not just of white women but all women.”

Morris is not a member of C.B. 11.

Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, says the women’s suffrage monument planned for Central Park is racist and must be redesigned.

His resolution also calls for including “a historian on the panel to ensure the optimum functioning of our Public Design Commission,” so that the commission can improve its mission to deepen public knowledge of contributions made by “under-acknowledged peoples to our society and include a ‘Truth in Labeling’ as criteria for approvals.”

The statue would go on the park’s Literary Walk and is currently slated for installation in the summer of 2020. It is being funded with $500,000 from a New York Life Insurance Company Challenge Grant, $100,000 from Borough President Brewer and $35,000 from City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, c0-chairperson of the Council’s Women’s Caucus and chairperson of the Council’s Committee on Women.

The Parks Department announced plans in 2017 for a monument honoring women’s suffrage movement leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and selected sculptor Meredith Bergmann’s proposed design for it. The design features women’s-rights activists Stanton and Anthony working alongside each other at a desk, with a lengthy scroll falling toward an old-fashioned ballot box below them. In honor of the breadth and diversity of the movement, the scroll will be inscribed with names and quotes of other women who took part in the fight for women’s rights.

Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, Ida B. Wells, Anna Howard Shaw, Lucretia Mott, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Alice Paul are some of the women that will be listed.

But the design has received criticism from some historians who believe that it depicts a a slanted and inaccurate history.

“It purports to honor Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as champions of universal women’s suffrage,” said Morris, the director of the Harlem Historical Society. “They were not. They were champions of white women’s suffrage.”

Both and Anthony and Stanton used racist rhetoric and valued the concerns of white Protestant women over those of of black women, as well as black men, and were generally elitist, Morris and others charge.

Meredith Bergmann’s model for her statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, which the city plans to install on Central Park’s Literary Walk next summer. (Courtesy Glenn Castellano/New York-Historical Society)

Morris would support adding more figures to the monument, including Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. But above all, he wants the Public Design Commission to go back to the drawing board and create a monument that is “more inclusive” and “accurately labeled.”

After presenting his case to C.B. 11, including a letter of support from fellow historian David Levering Lewis and articles from historians Martha S. Jones and Nell Irvin Painter, Morris spoke with Deputy Borough President Matthew Washington and Councilmember Rosenthal to air his concerns about the problematic statue.

According to a spokesperson, Rosenthal has no plans to rescind her $35,000 allocation at this time.

“Our office really looks forward to a community process which leads to a statue that celebrates women’s suffrage and the diverse movement that achieved it,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Brewer’s office declined comment for this article.

C.B. 11 is scheduled to vote on Morris’s resolution in September.