The East Harlem community was pleased to learn that Mayor Bill de Blasio had (finally) agreed with their seven-year call for the removal of the J. Marion Sims statue from its location on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.
But, rather than abolishing the theme of a white southern doctor who experimented on enslaved Black women without anesthesia or informed consent, the city has chosen to keep the Sims pedestal (and signage) in place with new language added “to provide context” for his work. This is an unacceptable insult to the East Harlem community; one which has robbed us of the possibility of creating an entirely new, more empowering, artistic vision for the site.
According to a January 12 press release, the City will “relocate the statue to Green-Wood Cemetery and take several additional steps to inform the public of the origin of the statue and historical context, including the legacy of non-consensual medical experimentation on women of color broadly and Black women specifically that Sims has come to symbolize. These additional steps include: add informational plaques both to the relocated statue and existing pedestal to explain the origin of the statue, commission new artwork with public input that reflects issues raised by Sims legacy, and partner with a community organization to promote in-depth public dialogues on the history of non-consensual medical experimentation of people of color, particularly women.”
The placatory “move” comes in the wake of a public debate surrounding the removal of symbols of white supremacy. Although certainly not new, the topic did gain significant national media attention on June 27, 2015 when activist Bree Newsome removed the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse—10 days after the murder of nine black parishioners in Charleston by self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof.
Community activists and legislators across the country stepped up their efforts even further after August 12, 2017 when James Fields Jr.—a white neo-Nazi protesting the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia—drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more.
While addressing the Charlottesville protests, Columbia, South Carolina Mayor Steve Benjamin also singled out J. Marion Sims. “I believe there are some statues on our state capitol I find wholly offensive,” he said. “The most offensive statue wasn’t a soldier, it’s J. Marion Sims, who’s considered the father of modern gynecology who tortured slave women and children for years as he developed his treatments for gynecology.”
The issue had thus broadened to the point where local opposition to symbols of white supremacy could no longer be dismissed as a matter of censorship or removing “art” for content—which had been the previous administration’s position. Mayor de Blasio then responded to the growing controversy—which included older protests against monuments to Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henri Philippe Pétain—by announcing the formation of an Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers in August 2017.
Not surprisingly, no further public action was taken by the administration until after the general election. In mid-November 2017, the Mayor’s Commission held hearings throughout the city—during which thousands presented testimonies on monuments to Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henri Philippe Pétain. Although the debates were often contentious—with dozens of anti-racist activists, progressive educators, and radical artists sounding off against conservative historians, “traditionalists,” and even members of the NYPD and FDNY—not a single person testified in defense the Sims statue.
In January, 2018, the Commission presented a Report to the City of New York with recommendations. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Mayor de Blasio then announced that only the Sims statue would be moved. The symbolic “move” was seen as a slap in the face by many who had for years maintained that the statue’s presence did a huge disservice to the neighborhood’s majority Black and Latino residents—groups that have historically been subjected to medical experiments without permission or regard for their wellbeing.
Although we are grateful for the Mayor’s gesture, we are also displeased that the wishes of over 20,000 petitioners, activists, and legislators who strongly objected to the monument’s presence our neighborhood have not been fully acknowledged. New York City should not be keeping White Supremacy on any pedestal—and certainly not in this community.
Dr. Sims is not our hero. There are many African American and Puerto Rican women (and men) who have made great medical and scientific contributions that have benefitted the East Harlem community—Dra. Helen Rodriguez-Trias and Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, to name a few. These are the s/heroes residents would prefer to have children learn about as they stroll in Central Park, confident in the understanding that Black Lives Matter.
Nonetheless, we will take this opportunity to continue the dialogue on racism and violence against women of color that East Harlem Preservation helped initiate. We congratulate everyone involved in this effort and invite them to join us in calling for a new artistic vision for the site.
In 2010, East Harlem Preservation began its campaign to remove the monument honoring Sims—a white southern doctor who experimented on enslaved Black women without anesthesia or informed consent. The initiative was inspired by activist Viola Plummer—who had begun calling attention to Sims’ cruel experiments soon after the publication of Harriet A. Washington’s book “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” in 2006.
Former East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito joined the campaign in February 2011 and wrote a letter asking the Parks Department to remove the statue, which she described as “a constant reminder of the cruelty endured by women of color in our country’s history.”
The NYC Parks Department refused to honor the request, claiming that “the city does not remove ‘art’ for content”—a ridiculous argument given the fact that the precedent was set when the Sims statue was removed from Bryant Park in 1934 to make way for “thematic changes.”
In early 2016, the NYC Parks Department offered to install a plaque beneath the Sims statue that would “honor” three of the women who were subjected to his unnecessarily barbaric experiments—Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy. Community Board 11 rejected the plaque and in June 2016 called for the removal of the statue, a decision which was wholeheartedly supported.
In September 2016, East Harlem Preservation partnered with artists from the Laundromat Project’s Harlem cohort at a speak-out in solidarity with the reproductive rights of women of color. The event was held in front of the Sims statue, where speakers and artists honored their ancestors and condemned the continued assault on Black and Latina female bodies.
In February 2017, East Harlem Preservation held a panel discussion on the Sims statue with Medical Apartheid author Harriet Washington; Dr. Lynn Roberts, reproductive justice scholar activist and Assistant Professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy; and Diane Collier, Chair of East Harlem’s Community Board 11. The program was broadcast over Manhattan Neighborhood Network.
On August 17, 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of an Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers co-chaired by the President of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, and the NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Tom Finkelpearl. convened to advise the Mayor on issues surrounding public art and historic monuments and markers on City-owned property.
Former NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito then wrote a letter to Mayor de Blasio asking that the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims be included in the 90-day review that the City conducted on symbols of hate on city property.
On August 19, 2017, members of Black Youth Project 100 held a powerful action in front of the Sims statue challenging the presence of such symbols of oppression and white supremacy.
On August 25, 2017, unknown person(s) took matters into their own hands—spray-painting the word “racist” on the back of the statue and splattering red paint on the eyes, presumably to symbolize the torture Sims inflicted on his victims.
On September 27, 2017, Dimiti Kadiev, a traveling artist affiliated with the Catholic Worker movement, painted a portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in front of the Sims statue and urged Mayor de Blasio to replace it with a monument honoring African American women.
Council members Inez Barron, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and other legislators then partnered with East Harlem Preservation, Community Board 11, and others to form the “Coalition to Remove the Dr. Sims Statue: Reclaiming Reproductive Rights of Women of Color”.
In November, 2017, the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers held public hearings throughout the city, during which thousands sounded off on monuments to Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, Henri Philippe Pétain, and others. Although the debate was rather contentious during discussions about the Columbus and Roosevelt statues, not a single person testified in defense the Sims statue.
In January, 2018, the Commission presented a Report to the City of New York with recommendations for general policy and specific existing monuments. Mayor de Blasio then announced that only the Sims statue would be moved.
Visit our website to learn more about our campaign
- Statue of controversial South Carolina doctor will be moved out of Manhattan – Charleston Post & Courier, January 12, 2018
- NYC monuments commission decides to move one statue and contextualize Columbus – Architect’s Newspaper, January 12, 2018
- Columbus statue stays, Dr. J. Marion Sims monument should be moved, city commission says – am New York, January 12, 2018
- J. Marion Sims Statue To Be Moved From Central Park – Harlem Patch, January 12, 2018
- De Blasio’s monuments panel decides to remove only one – New York Post, January 11, 2018
- NYC to keep controversial statues but add historical markers – WPIX, January 11, 2018
- Columbus Statue Will Stay In Place, But With Caveats – CBS, January 11, 2018
- De Blasio’s monument commission opts to keep Columbus statue — but will add markers honoring indigenous people – New York Daily News, January 11, 2018
- Two Artists Ask Why We Put White Men on Pedestals – Village Voice, December 12, 2017
- The Racist History of American Medicine – Splinter, December 8, 2017
- ‘For too long, they have generated harm’: the fight to remove offensive monuments in New York – The Guardian, December 8, 2017
- Over 120 Prominent Artists and Scholars Call on NYC to Take Down Racist Monuments – Hyperallergic, December 1, 2017
- Moving beyond the monument war – New York Daily News, December 1, 2017
- Columbus Hijacks New York Statue Commission Debate – Huffington Post, November 30, 2017
- Calls to Take Down Columbus and J. Marion Sims Statues at Public Hearing on NYC Monuments – Hyperallergic, November 22, 2017
- New Yorkers sound off on statue removal at de Blasio’s monuments commission hearing – New York Daily News, November 22, 2017
- Amid Raging Debate Over Statues, a Calm Discussion in New York – New York Times, November 17, 2017
- City announces schedule for public hearings on contentious monuments – Curbed, November 10, 2017
- Online survey on controversial statues launched by the city – am New York, October 25, 2017
- J. Marion Sims: #NotOurHero (Video) – MNN, October 25, 2017
- Coalition To Remove Central Park Statue Of Doctor Who Experimented On Slaves Grows – Harlem Patch, October 20, 2017
- J. Marion Sims: Monumental Error – Harpers Magazine, October 19, 2017
- Panel Will Devise Guidelines for Addressing Monuments Deemed Offensive – New York Times, September 8, 2017
- MAP: New York City’s controversial statues and monuments – New York Daily News, September 8, 2017
- Nature Magazine’s Disastrous ‘Whitewashing’ Editorial – The Atlantic, September 6, 2017
- A look at some of NYC’s most controversial monuments as city weighs whether to remove iconic statues – New York Daily News, September 2, 2017
- East Harlem residents say, ‘Remove the racist Sims’ statue!’ – Workers World, August 31, 2017
- New Target for Statue Removal: ‘Father of Gynecology’ Who Operated on Enslaved Black Women – Colorlines, August 30, 2017
- A surgeon experimented on slave women without anesthesia. Now his statues are under attack. – Washington Post, August 29, 2017
- ‘Racist’ Painted on Statue of Doctor Who Experimented on Slaves, NYPD Says – DNAinfo, August 28, 2017
- Not a Confederate general, but this man’s statue has got to go – Daily Kos, August 27, 2017
- Statue Of Doctor Who Experimented On Slaves Is Defaced, Spray-Painted With ‘Racist’ – Gothamist, August 27, 2017
- Statue of doctor who experimented on enslaved women is defaced – NY 1, August 27, 2017
- Central Park Statue of Doctor Who Experimented on Slaves Defaced – NBC, August 27, 2017
- Statue Of Controversial Dr. J. Marion Sims Vandalized With Spray-Paint – CBS, August 27, 2017
- Vandal spray-paints ‘racist’ on Central Park statue of doctor who experimented on slaves – New York Daily News, August 26, 2017
- Central Park Statue of Doctor Who Experimented on Slaves Defaced – NBC, August 26, 2017
- More Than a Statue: Rethinking J. Marion Sims’ Legacy – Rewire, August 24, 2017
- Places Should Be Renamed, Statues Taken Down, North As Well As The South – Huffington Post, August 24, 2017
- Statues, Symbolism: Anarcha – Huffington Post, August 23, 2017
- Pressure Builds to Take Down a Particularly Gruesome NYC Monument to Doctor Who Experimented on Female Slaves – Art News, August 23, 2017
- Black Women Want The Statue Of This Famed Gynecologist To Come Down For Good Reason – Essence, August 22, 2017
- Dr. J. Marion Sims Experimented On Black Women & His New York Statue Has People Outraged – Death Rattle Sports, August 22, 2017
- Why the Statue of J. Marion Sims in New York City Should Go – Medium, August 22, 2017
- Museum of the City of New York Calls for Removal of East Harlem Statue of Doctor Who Experimented on Enslaved Women – Art News, August 22, 2017
- Why Black Women Are Protesting A Statue Of This Famed Gynecologist – Huffington Post, August 21, 2017
- Protesters Target Central Park Statue Of Gynecologist Who Experimented On Slaves – Gothamist, August 21, 2017
- East Harlem statue of unethical M.D. should be the next ‘hero’ to fall, says community board – 6sqft, August 21, 2017
- Activists Demand Removal of Monument to Doctor Who Experimented on Slaves – DNAinfo, August 21, 2017
- Calls for removal of statue of 19th century doctor in East Harlem – ABC, August 21, 2017
- In Wake of Charlottesville, Statue of. J. Marion Sims in Central Park Reignites Controversy – NBC, August 21, 2017
- Protesters demand removal of Central Park statue of 19th century doctor who experimented on slave women – New York Daily News, August 20, 2017
- Black Youth Project 100 Says: “FUCK White Supremacy!” Demands Removal of J. Marion Sims Statue! – EHP, August 19, 2017
- An Antebellum Hero, but to Whom? – New York Times, August 18, 2017
- De Blasio: NYC To Review ‘Symbols Of Hate’ On City Property – CBS, August 17, 2017
- Momentum builds to remove statues of a controversial doctor in Columbia, NYC in wake of Charlottesville – Post and Courier, August 16, 2017
- Mayor of Columbia says statue of J. Marion Sims should come down – Post and Courier, August 16, 2017
- Columbia Mayor Asks South Carolina To Remove Sculpture of the ‘Father of Gynecology’ – Jezebel, August 16, 2017
- Steve Benjamin says J. Marion Sims monument at S.C. State House ‘should come down at some point’ – The State, August 16, 2017
- J. Marion Sims: ‘Savior of women’ or medical monster? Charleston Post and Courier, April 7, 2017
- “Speak Out in Solidarity For the Reproductive Rights of Women of Color” to Air on MNN 12/21, 12/24, and 12/27 – EHP, December 20, 2016
- East Harlem Activists Still Pushing To Remove Controversial Statue – The Uptowner, October 10, 2016
- NOT OUR STATUE: Speak Out in Solidarity For the Reproductive Rights of Women of Color (Video) – EHP, September 25, 2016
- Community Renews Push to Remove Statue of Man Who Experimented on Slaves – DNAinfo, September 24, 2016
- Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology – NPR, February 21, 2016
- Dr. J. Marion Sims Medical Experiments on Enslaved Women and Children – Ramp Your Voice, August 2015
- Polémica en East Harlem por estatua de ginecólogo – El Diario-La Prensa, 7 de mayo de 2014
- Council Speaker Urged to Remove Statue of Doctor Who Experimented on Slaves – DNAinfo, May 7, 2014
- Sculpture of Paradox: Doctor as Hero and Villain – New York Times, March 2, 2014
- Time to ‘Remember the Ladies’ — in Central Park – Huffington Post, March 18, 2013
- Doctor James Marion Frankenstein Sims – Too Much Black, March 4, 2013
- Councilwoman Wants to Remove Statue of Doctor Who Operated on Slaves – DNAinfo, February 15, 2013
- Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito: NYC Statue An Ugly Reminder Of Slavery – New York Daily News, February 15, 2013
- Medical Apartheid Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present – Democracy Now, February 13, 2013
- Like Former Mayors, a Statue Fades From View – The New York Times, September 5, 2011
- American Mengele – Huffington Post, September 16, 2011
- The Portrayal of J. Marion Sims’ Controversial Surgical Legacy – Jurology, June 2011
- Melissa Writes to Parks Department Regarding Offensive Statue Outside Central Park- February 14, 2011
- Harlem Doesn’t Like Statue Of Slave-Operating Vagina Doc – Gothamist, February 13, 2011
- Slave doc knocked off pedestal – New York Post, February 13, 2011
- World Famous Gynecologist Once Operated on Slaves – Black Scholars for Black America – December 10, 2010
- Slaves, Experiments & Dr. Marion Sims’s Statue: Should It Stay or Go? – New American Media, December 8, 2010
- Unequal treatment – New York Times, February 18, 2007
- The medical ethics of Dr J Marion Sims – Journal of Medical Ethics – June 2006
- Scholars Argue Over Legacy of Surgeon Who Was Lionized, Then Vilified – The New York Times, October 28, 2003
- Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts, 1997
Letters of Support
- Coalition to remove the Sims statue press release – October 18, 2017
- Coalition to remove the Sims Fact Sheet – October 18, 2017
- Letter to Mayor de Blasio – Dr. Camille A. Clare, Manhattan Central Medical Society, October 13, 2017
- Letter to Mayor de Blasio – Richard Berlin, Dream Charter School, October 10, 2017
- Gregory Razzano, August 27, 2017
- Greta Casanave, August 26, 2017
- J. Lorraine Frieson, August 25, 2017
- Ellen Landsberger, MD, MS, August 23, 2017
- Spencer Merolla, August 20, 2017
- Elsbet Servay, FNP-BC, August 19, 2017
- Savini Ganhewa, August 19, 2017
- Joe Rogers, Jr. – Total Equity Now, August 19, 2017
- Letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio – Speaker Mark-Viverito, August 17, 2017
- Susan-Rubin, MD, MPH, August 17, 2017
- K.J. Martin, August 15, 2017
- National Advocates for Pregnant Women, August 11, 2017
- East Harlem Council for Human Services, April 26, 2017
- East Harlem Community Health Committee, April 18, 2017
- East Harlem Community Health Committee, April 18, 2017
- Mount Sinai Students, March 27, 2017
- Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Signatories, March 27, 2017
- Barbara Brenner, DrPH, MSW, March 24, 2017
- Patricia Fry (Retired Political Director, Committee of Interns and Residents/SEIU), March 21, 2017
- Dr. Andrés Torres (Lehman College Dept. of Latin American, Latino and Puerto Rican Studies), March 17, 2017
- Iris Morales (Author/Filmmaker), March 15, 2017
- Raymond Ramirez (Founder of The Lyric Lab), March 15, 2017
- Letter to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation – Community Board 11, September 14, 2016
- Letter to the NYC Public Design Commission – Community Board 11, September 14, 2016
- Letter to Commissioner Adrian Benepe – Councilwoman Mark-Viverito, February 11, 2011
- Mayor de Blasio Releases Monuments Commission’s Report, Announces Decisions on Controversial Monuments – Press Release, January 12, 2018
- Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, And Markers’ Report to the City of New York – January 2018
- EHP Survey Results
- Medical Apartheid (Harriet Washington, 2007)
- Statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims – NYC Parks Department
- James Marion Sims – Wikipedia
- Unethical human experimentation in the United States – Wikipedia
- J. Marion Sims Letters
- The Story of My Life – James Marion Sims, 1898
- Reply to Dr. J. Marion Sims’ Pamphlet, “The Woman’s Hospital in 1874” – Edmund Randolph Peaslee, 1877
- Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (bio)
- Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias (bio)