UPDATED 7:25 p.m.
Citing “safety concerns,” city officials in New York took down a statue of Thomas Jefferson at New York City Hall Saturday morning, ending its 187-year stay in the city.
The statue depicts Jefferson, a founding father, as a student in his alma mater, Monticello. Officials said the issue in New York is due to the lack of oversight by the state over public art.
City and state officials were unanimously approving the work, according to the New York Times.
“It’s pretty cool to make history again,” said the chief of staff for the city’s public works, Romeo Espinal.
The statue was moved to the state Supreme Court, where it is awaiting a decision on removal.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Mayor Bill de Blasio called the statue’s removal “an act of grace and empathy.”
“Today we took down the Thomas Jefferson statue from City Hall that has been a beloved and regrettable relic of our past for nearly a century,” he wrote. “But we also replaced it with a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who fought for slavery and drafted the Trans-Mississippi Treaty of 1839 that forbade the Dakota people from leaving their homelands.”
According to de Blasio, 19 people had signed a petition that called for the statue’s removal.
Protests, mostly on social media, kicked off in the past week, largely over the statue’s location near the World Trade Center. Activists gathered near the State Department on Wednesday to denounce the statue’s location on its 60th anniversary.
Later that day, in a city council hearing, a coalition of New York religious leaders and other public officials spoke out against the statue and asked for its removal, which prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to say he did not support it being moved from the ground-floor location it has occupied for decades.
“We have a statue on our Capitol steps in Massachusetts, we have a statue on our Mall here in Washington, D.C.,” said de Blasio, who added that at the heart of many of the city’s problems are “feelings about the past.”
The issue of public art is not new in New York. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, New York took down a statue of Christopher Columbus on a wall of the World Trade Center, which was in constant conflict with activists who often displayed a goat-headed figure resembling the explorer in front of the statue’s old location in front of the Department of Justice, which was later reopened. Columbus Day was moved to the country’s Columbus Day holiday and replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day.
“Just as Christopher Columbus was attacked and vilified and condemned for what he did as a European, so was Thomas Jefferson for what he did as a European in America,” New York City councilman Rafael Espinal said, according to WNYC. “The statue is rightly seen as a rallying symbol of anti-colonialism and anti-miscegenation.”
For his part, Jefferson never explicitly supported slavery. The essay “Notes from the Founding Father” by author Doris Kearns Goodwin showed the mind of Jefferson in 1862, when Jefferson said: “We cannot permit slavery but it should not be a state policy in favor of slavery. If we promote it we are guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors,” The Atlantic reported.
“The people of New York are hereby refuting the caricature of Thomas Jefferson as a monster of a man who is wholly in favor of slavery,” Goodwin wrote in her book. “Just look at the lines above. This is exactly the kind of sane Jefferson we are expressing. This is Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence.”