NYC Eyes on 'Slavery Reparations' Task Force, Removing Statues of Columbus, Washington

The city council is considering expensive proposals about reparations for slavery and the removal of monuments dedicated to important historical figures.
NYC Eyes on 'Slavery Reparations' Task Force, Removing Statues of Columbus, Washington
A statue of George Washington is seen near the New York Stock Exchange building along Wall Street on August 1, 2018 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

As New York City struggles to handle the swelling population of illegal immigrants, the city council is considering expensive proposals about reparations for slavery and the removal of monuments honoring certain historical figures.

One of the proposals discussed at Tuesday's meeting of the city's Cultural Affairs Committee would require the city to remove publicly displayed artwork that progressive activists deemed a "celebration of those who perpetuated oppression."

Specifically, the bill directs the city's Public Design Commission (PDC) to review and remove artworks depicting historical figures "who owned enslaved persons or directly benefitted economically from slavery, or who participated in systemic crimes against indigenous peoples or other crimes against humanity."

Should the proposal be approved, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, New Amsterdam governor Peter Stuyvesant, and America's first president, George Washington, could see their statues across the city removed.

The proposed policy does provide an option for the city to not remove a statue and instead install an "explanatory plaque" next to it. It also instructs the PDC to work with the city's Education Department to place plaques on sidewalks or other public spaces near schools that are named after a historical figure that meets the criteria.

Councilwoman Sandy Nurse, a Brooklyn Democrat who authored the bill, said at Tuesday's meeting that this is meant to "rectify historical wrongs."

"It is a reckoning with the historical injustices that continue to plague our cities," she said. "This bill allows New York City to address the deep-rooted legacies of slavery, colonization, and systemic crimes against humanity."

Ms. Nurse then claimed that art and public spaces are "not neutral" and that they have the power to "shape our collective consciousness."

"This bill is not an erasure of history—quite the opposite. It's actually an act of remembrance and truth to tell the whole story, rather than a convenient one," Ms. Nurse said.

Sreoshy Banerjea, the executive director of the PDC, said she was supportive of this initiative, adding that her office would need more resources for the task.

"The Commission supports the city's effort," Ms. Banerjea told the committee members on Tuesday, pointing to the successful removal of a statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century Alabama physician who has been credited as the "Father of Gynecology" for his revolutionary approach to treating the diseases of women. Sims has also been attacked by modern doctors over his use of female slaves as experimental subjects.

In 2018, the PDC approved a recommendation by the de Blasio administration, moving the statue from the street across the New York Academy of Medicine to a cemetery in Brooklyn where Sims is buried.

"We support the intent and want to discuss how a structure could set it up for success, because there's been a lot of precedents," Ms. Banerjea said.

Also discussed on Tuesday was a proposal to assemble a task force that would "consider the impact of slavery and past injustices for African Americans in New York City and reparations for such injustices."

Neither of the proposals is expected to be cheap. In January 2022, the city-owned American Museum of Natural History took down the iconic bronze statue of President Theodore Roosevelt that had been standing in front of the building for 80 years. The removal and restoration process cost at least $2 million—and that didn't include the expense of storage and the eventual transportation to North Dakota, where the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is scheduled to open in 2026.

Meanwhile, in 2020, San Francisco formed the first-in-the-nation task force to study and make recommendations for reparations for slavery. The task force in March recommended that the city gives every eligible black adult a one-time $5 million check eliminate their personal debt and tax burdens, guarantee a basic income of at least $97,000 for 250 years, and sell city homes to black families at a price of $1.

Some other bills include a mandate for human services contractors to go through "anti-racism training," and a call to put up a sign at the intersection of Wall and Pearl Streets "to mark the site of New York's first slave market."

These proposals come as New York City's budget stretched thin amid the illegal immigration crisis. Mayor Eric Adams has announced a plan to cut budget by 15 percent from every government agency in order to free up money to accommodate the 110,000 migrants in the city's care.

According to Mr. Adams, agency heads must implement a 5 percent reduction in city-funded programs before an upcoming budget plan in November. And they may be asked to find another 5 percent saving before a budget plan in January 2024, and again in April.

"The simple truth is that longtime New Yorkers and asylum seekers will feel these potential cuts, and they will hurt," the mayor said earlier this month, adding that the city is facing a crisis that will cost "$12 billion over three fiscal years."