As New York City residents demand that the federal government rename General Lee Avenue and Stonewall Jackson Drive in Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton, monuments to the two slaveholding Confederate generals sit unperturbed on the grounds of Bronx Community College. [UPDATE BELOW: The statues will be removed and replaced.]
Part of BCC’s “Hall of Fame for Great Americans,” the busts sit along a 630-foot long, colonnaded stone walkway behind the college’s library, which resembles Columbia University’s well-known Low Library.
BCC touts the hall as “a unique and patriotic reminder that this country's phenomenal growth has been due to the vitality, ingenuity, and intellect of these individuals.”
After an anti-racist protester was killed during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, monuments to the Confederacy have been both officially and unofficially removed in Maryland and North Carolina. The federal government has so far resisted calls to rename the two streets in Fort Hamilton, but a plaque commemorating Robert E. Lee outside St. John’s Episcopal Church inside Fort Hamilton was removed on Wednesday morning.
The Daughters of the Confederacy placed the Fort Hamilton plaque in 1912, and the organization is also responsible for the busts of Lee and Jackson at BCC.
“Clearly Confederate Army Generals are not great Americans and have no business being part of this display,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told Gothamist in an email.
Bronx City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, whose district includes many of the college's overwhelmingly black and Latino students, agrees.
“The Councilman 100 percent agrees with Speaker Mark-Viverito and believes that the statues should go,” said Raymond Rodriguez, Torres’ deputy chief of staff.
Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera, whose district includes BCC, said in a statement,
“The time has long passed for these statues to have been removed."
Susan Powell, who just enrolled her daughter Audrey at BCC, called the statues “a slap in the face."
"He probably would have a heart attack right now seeing all these people of color mixing together," Powell told Gothamist on Wednesday afternoon, referring to Lee. "He’d probably want to start another war."
Audrey agreed: “They need to take them down. Burn them. Put persons of color in their place.”
The unveiling of Lee's bust in the Hall of Fame in 1923 (courtesy Bronx Community College)
The hall is the brainchild of Dr. Henry Mitchell MacCracken, Chancellor of New York University from 1891 to 1910, according to Remo Cosentino, an assistant at BCC charged with guiding tours. In the late 1800s, Cosentino told Gothamist, NYU was determined to build a new campus in what would become known as University Heights, and included the hall at MacCracken’s urging.
It was America’s first hall of fame, Cosentino says, and it served as a model for all to follow, from the Baseball Hall of Fame on down to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The statues of Lee and Jackson are part of the hall’s collection of 98 bronze busts of notable Americans, set on pedestals on either side of the walkway. These figures are drawn from fourteen categories, and include politicians, writers, educators, inventors, military leaders, judges, theologians, philanthropists, humanitarians, statesmen, artists, and explorers.
The artists all belonged to the National Sculpture Society and had to be classically trained,” according to Karla Renee Williams, Executive Legal Counsel and Deputy to the President of Bronx Community College.
Chancellor MacCracken wanted the hall's selection process to be democratic, Williams said. The hall considered nominations from members of the public. After a person received a certain number of votes, a “Senate,” of “100 voters made the final choice. The Senate was composed of American leaders: past American Presidents, Presidents of Colleges, Senators and men of renown in various fields.”
In 75 years, from 1901 until 1976, one African American was inducted into the hall: Booker T. Washington.
A second, George Washington Carver, was selected in 1973, but his bust was never commissioned.
The unveiling of Jackson's bust in 1957 (courtesy Bronx Community College)
Nonetheless, Williams said, in its heyday the hall was “extremely popular, as Americans nominated their favorite ‘Great Americans,’ attended the installation events when the busts were placed in the hall.”
By 1973, however, as other forms of entertainment eroded the hall’s popularity, a cash-strapped NYU sold the campus to the City University of New York, and it became Bronx Community College. The college kept the hall.
The statue of Lee was installed in 1923, while Jackson’s was mounted in 1957.
The induction of these statues, Williams told Gothamist, was based on a letter-writing campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group dedicated to the preservation of Confederate Culture. The U.D.C. also funded the creation of the busts, as well as their installation, according to Williams.
“We believe this was done to heal the breach between North and South,” Cosentino, the college assistant, told Gothamist.
Representatives from BCC and the Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions about whether the busts would remain.
In the case of the Fort Hamilton streets named after Lee and Jackson, an Army staffer argued that “any effort to rename memorializations on Fort Hamilton would be controversial and divisive. This is contrary to the Nation’s original intent in naming these streets, which was the spirit of reconciliation.”
Bree Newsome, an artist and activist who in 2015 climbed a flagpole in front of the South Carolina state capitol and tore down a Confederate battle flag, flatly dismissed the notion that statues of Confederate icons promote healing.
“Celebrating Confederate war criminals has NOTHING to do with healing,” Newsome wrote in an email.
“The only way for our nation to heal and move forward is to deal honestly with the nation's past sins and present injustices and to map out a future where equal rights are ensured for every person.”
UPDATE: In a statement issued at 6:08 p.m. Wednesday night, the president of BCC, Thomas Isekenegbe, announced that the statues would be removed and replaced.
After significant consultation with CUNY Chancellor J.B. Milliken, we are moving forward with the removal of the busts of Confederate Generals Robert Edward Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. The attached press release was issued this afternoon and sent to our local elected officials and to inquiring news outlets. We hope that this change will better reflect the values and beliefs of CUNY and BCC and allow for continued dialogue about building an inclusive Hall of Fame moving forward.
Governor Andrew Cuomo made a series of tweets after the president of BCC released his statement.
There are many great Americans, many of them New Yorkers worthy of a spot in this great hall. These two confederates are not among them.
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) August 17, 2017
Additional reporting by Christopher Robbins.