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President Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy examined during statue removal process

Published: Jul. 6, 2021 at 2:47 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - New York City’s design commission voted unanimously last month to remove a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt from the American Museum of Natural History.

After a yearslong discussion, the commission said this 10-feet-tall statue of the former president and New York governor has come to symbolize racial hierarchy and discrimination.

Pressure to remove the monument resurfaced following the death of George Floyd—it depicts Roosevelt on a horse with an Indian man and an African man standing beside him. Last year, the museum joined the movement and publicly requested its removal.

“The Statue has long been controversial because of the hierarchical composition that places one figure on horseback and the others walking alongside, and many of us find its depictions of the Native American and African figures and their placement in the monument racist,” the museum said in a statement.

The conversation is now calling into question the legacy of both the monument and the man.

Dickinson State University President Stephen Easton said his university’s Theodore Roosevelt Center is working to piece together the president’s history by digitizing thousands of documents.

“Had it not been for his time in North Dakota, he never would have been president of the United States,” Easton said, describing research on Roosevelt’s time spent hunting and ranching in North Dakota’s Badlands.

But, Easton says, they are also finding evidence of Roosevelt’s injustices, like the 1906 Brownsville incident, in which he dismissed 167 African-American soldiers after a white civilian died in a race-related quarrel, though a Texas court would not hold them guilty. Roosevelt also reportedly supported eugenics.

“There are certain things that Roosevelt did in the arena of race relations that I think he erred on,” Easton said. “He was on the wrong side of history.”

The former president’s father was a museum founder. His great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt IV, serves as a Museum Trustee and supports the statue’s removal.

“The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy,” he said in a press release. “It is time to move the Statue and move forward.”

The monument was installed in the 1940s to commemorate Roosevelt’s legacy as a naturalist and conservationist. Its original intention might not have been to promote a racial hierarchy—the memorial’s architect described it as depicting a “heroic group” of figures.

“The two figures at [Roosevelt’s] side are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races,” said James Earle Fraser, the statue’s sculptor, in 1940.

Nevertheless, some scholars disagree with that characterization of “friendliness,” and say the monument has racist symbolism that warrants its removal.

Last year, the museum opened “Addressing the Statue,” an exhibit that explored the statue’s history and reactions to it in recent years.

The fate of the statue now remains unclear. New York officials say they are working on a timeline for removal and how to store the sculpture until it can be relocated to a different publicly accessible location. Dickinson University has no interest in acquiring it, Easton said.

Grace Ferguson contributed to this report.

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