The fate of the James Marion Sims Monument
How does a shifting social consciousness change a city’s landscape? Who is involved in deciding which stories a city tells? What constitutes a vital moment in a rapidly-changing city’s history?
Over the course of 84 years, millions of people walking on the East Side of Cental Park nears 103rd Street expect to encounter a bronze monument. The statue was first erected in 1894 in Bryant Park, and then relocated to Central Park in 1934 to stand across the street from the New York Academy of Medicine, which became its permanent home. Standing on a massive granite pedestal reading “his brilliant achievement carried the same of American surgery throughout the entire world,” this statue told a fragmented history.
The figure, James Marion Sims, widely referred to as the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” contributed innovative new techniques to a field that was not getting the same attention as other medical fields ion the 19th century. His practice in Montgomery, Alabama was influential in the discovery of several procedures. He founded the first Women’s Hospital in New York City and found a cure for vesicovaginal fistula.
Dr. Sims practiced his techniques on enslaved black women without anesthesia. He often invited other physicians to watch as he practiced invasive, violent procedures on enslaved black women who had no choice; pseudo-science argued that black women were more tolerant to pain. All but three of his test subject’s names–Bestsey, Lucy, and Anarcha–have been lost in history but his name has been celebrated. This monument in New York City contributed to that celebration until it vanished last April.
Community members had been protesting the statue’s presence since 2010. They gathered almost 30,000 signatures and fought to amplify the full story and get the attention of the City. The NYC Public Design Commission approved the plans to take down the statue in early 2018, and they planned to relocate the statue to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn where Sims is buried.
But the relocation was met with opposition from local residents who did not want the statute in their neighborhood, pushing against the story it tells and the narrative it represents. Residents petitioned and won. Today, the statue’s fate is unknown to the public.
How do New Yorkers contribute to the stories of their city tells? How does a changing landscape reflect a shifting social consciousness? Whose responsibility is it to investigate which stores our cities are amplifying?