Greenwood Heights

Green-Wood Cemetery accepts a second disgraced statue

Monument to 19th-century doctor who experimented on slaves gets new home

April 17, 2018 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This statue of J. Marion Sims, who operated on black women slaves without anesthesia, was moved from Central Park to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery on Tuesday following outcry about Sims’ historical legacy. Photo courtesy of the NYC Parks Department

It’s not a monument to a 19th-century doctor who experimented on slaves — it’s a jumping off point for a discussion of history.

That’s Green-Wood Cemetery’s explanation for why it has accepted a controversial statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims — the renowned, but tainted, man of medicine whose monument was removed from a Manhattan park and delivered to the celebrated Brooklyn boneyard on Tuesday. It’s the second tarnished artwork that the cemetery has accepted in recent years.

The statue of Sims had been identified as a “symbol of hate” by a mayoral commission charged with studying local monuments in the wake of a national reckoning over Confederate statues and other artwork that some communities might find offensive, such as statues of Christopher Columbus. Sims notoriously operated on black women without anesthesia. His experimental procedures also caused the death of numerous black babies. But he was also heralded for curing disease and founding the Woman’s Hospital — the first hospital for women in the United States — and America’s first cancer institute, New York Cancer Hospital.

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The artwork will eventually mark the grave of Sims himself, who is buried at Green-Wood, once the cemetery constructs a suitable historical display to put Sims’s life and work “into context.”

“We (accepted the statue) with the intent to make sure that his whole story be told,” said Richard Moylan, president of Green-Wood, adding that the statue would become “a visual focal point that will bring attention to a factual display … to document Sims’s story, including his shameful experimentation on enslaved women in the South between 1845 and 1849.”

The cemetery, Moylan added, has “the responsibility to preserve this history, and not to whitewash it.”

But some locals remain concerned.

“Statues are created to honor heroes,”  said Kate Axelrod, a member of Concerned Neighbors of the Green-Wood Cemetery, which has started a petition drive to keep the statue out of the cemetery.

“This statue was clearly intended to do so, by making the statue out of bronze and showing Sims in a heroic pose,” she added. “Sims was not a hero and should not be memorialized in any way. Nor should the residents of South Brooklyn be forced to encounter monuments to white supremacy during their use of neighborhood green space. The cemetery’s primary purpose is not an educational institution, and I would choose to educate myself about medical experimentation on slaves in a different venue.”

It’s not the first time Green-Wood has offered itself as the final resting place for ignominy — or changing tastes or historical trends.

The Sims statue will eventually stand near another artwork with a history of controversy — “Civic Virtue” — by sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies. That statue, whose full name is “Civic Virtue Triumphant Over Unrighteousness,” was banished from first Manhattan, then Queens, for its allegedly misogynistic portrayal of a muscular male nude (aka “Civic Virtue”) standing above two writhing female figures representing Vice and Corruption. It sat in front of Queens Borough Hall for 72 years before being banished to Brooklyn in 2012. 

“Civic Virtue was perceived as a male stomping upon two women,” Green-Wood said in an earlier statement, which called the work “misunderstood for decades.”

The artist had claimed he had wanted to depict progressive good government and an end to graft and prostitution. But controversy erupted as soon as the statue was unveiled in 1922.

MacMonnies only fueled the fire, telling American Art News, “What do I care if all the ignoramuses and quack politicians in New York, together with all the damn-fool women get together to talk about my statue? Let ’em cackle.”

None other than Anthony Weiner objected to the sculpture’s depiction of women shortly before it was removed to stand near MacMonnies’s relatives buried at the cemetery.

Story was updated on April 19 to reflect additional local concerns.

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