Dr. Marion Sims Statue

Viola Plummer at #NotOurStatue: Speak-out in front of J. Marion Sims statue!East Harlem has a tradition of creating arts, culture, and action in the streets. We have dozens of murals honoring our leaders. But 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue does not represent that tradition. Instead, we have a statue of Marion Sims, a southern doctor who experimented on Black women slaves and their infants, without permission or anesthesia. It is not our space, but this is our community, so we work to reclaim these sites.

Recently, artists from the Laundromat Project in partnership with El Museo del Barrio and East Harlem Preservation organized a speak-out in solidarity with the reproductive rights of women of color. The event was held Sunday, September 25, 2016 in front of the Sims statue where performance artist Francheska Alcantara, activist Viola Plummer, spoken word artists Moana Love and Ravem joined others to honor their ancestors and condemn the (continued) assault on Black and Latina female bodies.

East Harlem Preservation first became involved in the campaign to remove the statue in 2007 when we learned of a hand-petition being circulated in Harlem by Viola Plummer soon after the publication of Harriet Washington’s book, “Medical Apartheid.”  We endorsed the campaign immediately because we agreed that the statue was an affront to the predominantly Black and Latino community of East Harlem. We then began our own online petition and public awareness campaign to support Ms. Plummer’s efforts in Harlem.

Our local Council woman, Melissa Mark-Viverito then came on board, and wrote a letter on February 11, 2011 asking the Parks Dept. to move the statue, which she said “serves as a constant reminder of the cruelty endured by women of color in our country’s history. I am disturbed that a monument honoring an individual who tortured enslaved women and young Irish immigrants for the advancement of medicine is located in a neighborhood where people of color are the majority.”

Speak Out in Solidarity 4 Reproductive Rights of Women of ColorBut, former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe refused on the grounds that “the city does not remove ‘art’ for content.” This was an inaccurate statement given the fact that the statue was actually moved from Bryant Park in 1934 to make way for thematic changes in the use of that park.

Last June, Community Board 11 also called for the removal of the statue, a decision which we wholeheartedly support.

We have continued to push for the removal of the statue in solidarity with educators, activists, and community residents who oppose the statue because its presence does a huge disservice to the neighborhood’s Black and Latino residents. African Americans and Puerto Ricans, in particular, have historically been subjected to medical experiments without permission and regard for their health (Tuskegee Airmen, forced sterilization of women in Puerto Rico, etc.)

We hope that our Councilwoman, now as Speaker, would do the right thing and change her stance from support for the plaque. She has the power to remove the statue, as she once requested the city do. Just as they plan to install a statue honoring Puerto Rican musician Tito Puente on 110th Street, Speaker Mark-Viverito and Mayor de Blasio also have the means to replace the Sims statue with something more representative of this community.

Dr. Sims is not our hero. There are many African American and Puerto Rican men and women of medicine and science who could better represent this community: Daniel Hale Williams, Charles Drew, Ramón Emeterio Betances, Helen Rodriguez-Trias, or Rebecca Lee Crumpler, to name a few. These are the s/heroes we would prefer to have our children learn about as they stroll in Central Park, confident in the understanding that Black Lives Matter.

We urge everyone to call Councilwoman Mark-Viverito’s office at (212) 828-9800 and ask her to take action.