New York City’s tricky reckoning with history

In the coming days, NYC will begin a difficult process: reviewing monuments to history on city property and, thereby, reviewing history itself.

It started with the political impulse by Mayor Bill de Blasio to respond to white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a Confederate memorial. De Blasio promised a 90-day review of “all symbols of hate” in NYC, and then the outrage deluge began.

Will the scrutiny target statues of Christopher Columbus on Columbus Circle or of Ulysses S. Grant near Riverside Drive? How will NYC balance understanding of historic figures with requests of aggrieved communities? What exactly will happen to the statues, and who will decide? More details are expected from de Blasio soon, and the process will be contentious. But it should be handled carefully. History should not be confused with heritage or culture.

One example sure to be on the commission’s list: a statue of 19th century doctor J. Marion Sims, who started the first hospital for women in NYC and is considered the father of modern gynecology. Sims developed a cure for vesicovaginal fistulas, a painful condition that comes from complications in childbirth. But to get there, Sims experimented on enslaved women who suffered from the condition.

Sims is far less known than the Confederate leaders often targeted by activists, but his statue has been an irritant to residents in the East Harlem neighborhood where it stands. A thoughtful accounting of Sims’ contributions would consider not only the condition he treated, now uncommon in the developed world, but also educating the public on the way he came to his cure. Some historians don’t find Sims to be an evil-scientist monster, but his own writing indicates that even his peers might have been uncomfortable with his yearslong experiments. Like many in his time, he seems to have held racist views.

Beyond Sims, the work he did was part of a long line of discrimination and medical experimentation on African- Americans. That shared legacy has long-lasting repercussions, and reckoning with it isn’t a frivolous concern. It’s the enduring shadow behind the statues.