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One thing that happens when you make a Theodore Roosevelt-themed podcast is that whenever there’s TR-related news, you get a ton of messages about it. Which is exactly what happened to me when news broke that the American Museum of Natural History had asked for the equestrian statue of TR that stands outside its Central Park West entrance to be removed.
The request comes at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Statues of historical figures, including those of the Confederacy and monuments dedicated to figures who owned or sold enslaved people, are being defaced, removed, or pulled down entirely—and not just here in the States, but all around the world as well.
Although the museum’s request to remove the statue—which features TR on horseback, flanked on the ground by one Native American and one African figure—was made in light of the current movement, this particular statue of TR has been controversial for a very long time. In 1971, activists dumped a can of red paint on Roosevelt’s head in what a paper at that time called “the latest incident against the Roosevelt statue.” In 1987, former New York City parks commissioner Gordon Davis said he would support the statue being blasted away from where it stood—“unless,” he noted, “Roosevelt got off and walked with them.” Beginning in 2016, activists have protested the statue by organizing marches, covering it with a parachute, and splashing red paint on the base.
Removing the statue was considered as recently as 2017. The Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers—which was, according to a report issued in January 2018 [PDF], “committed to a process of historical reckoning, a nuanced understanding of the complicated histories we have inherited”—was split about what to do with the statue.
Ultimately, the city decided to keep the statue where it was, and asked the museum to add context to the work—which the museum did in its exhibit “Addressing the Statue.” We touched briefly on the statue and on the exhibit in a larger discussion of Roosevelt’s views on race in the episode “History Vs. TR.”
Why was the city involved in the decision, you ask? Because even though many associate the statue directly with the museum thanks to its location, Roosevelt’s own history with the institution, and things like the Night at the Museum movies, it’s actually part of a public memorial to Roosevelt located on public land.
While some have issues with the statue because of Roosevelt himself, the museum has said that its request to move it isn’t about Roosevelt but rather because of the statue’s composition and what it implies.
So, in this bonus episode of History Vs., we’re going to talk about the statue—why it’s there, what the artists intended, and why it’s viewed as controversial today. And we’ll dive into Roosevelt’s own views on legacy.
The statue’s story begins in 1920, when the New York State Legislature established the Roosevelt Memorial Commission. Nine years later, construction began on a memorial within the museum that, according to the prospectus of the competition, should “express Roosevelt’s life as a nature lover, naturalist, explorer, and author of works of natural history.”
The memorial may have ended up at AMNH because of Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was then both president of the museum and the head of the New York State Roosevelt Memorial Commission. Osborn had also known Roosevelt—who contributed specimens to the museum, and whose father was one of the founding members—personally.
The memorial was designed by architect John Russell Pope and included the museum’s Central Park West entrance, its Theodore Roosevelt rotunda, and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. In 1925, the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt was commissioned to become a part of that larger memorial.
In 1928, Pope wrote that the statue would sit on a granite pedestal “bearing an equestrian statue of Roosevelt with two accompanying figures on foot, one representing the American Indian and the other the primitive African. This heroic group … will symbolize the fearless leadership, the explorer, benefactor and educator.”
Sculptor James Earle Fraser—who had created, among other things, a bust of Roosevelt, a statue of Ben Franklin, and the Buffalo nickel—was chosen to create the sculpture, which was based on a statue by Andrea del Verrocchio.
The statue was completed in 1939 and unveiled in 1940. Fraser said that the figures beside the former president “are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” The figures have no names, and are below, and trail behind, Roosevelt.
So, we’ve talked about what the artists intended when they created the statue. Now, let’s talk about how the statue is viewed today.
Because a white man is ahead of and above an Indigenous American person and an African person, many see a clear picture of racial hierarchy and white supremacy. Others see a monument to colonialism and conquest.
Not only that, but the unnamed figures seem to be a hodgepodge of stereotypes and poor research. The Native American figure appears to be a Plains Indian, but it’s a generic and stereotypical rendering. According to the museum’s exhibit about the statue, the shield on the African figure appears to be based on the Maasai people, whom Roosevelt met during his time in East Africa. But the museum explains that “the hairstyle and facial scarification on the figure do not accurately reflect Maasai traditions,” and the cloth draped around the body is more akin to a Greek or Roman sculpture.
In 1999, James Loewen wrote in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong that “some authorities claim the flanked figures are ‘guides’ or ‘continents,’ but visitors without such foreknowledge internalize the monument without even thinking about it, as a declaration of white supremacy. When the statue went up the museum was openly racist.”
At that time, the museum had strong ties to eugenics. Under Osborn’s tenure, two conferences about eugenics were held there. Roosevelt himself also supported certain aspects of eugenics, especially later in his life.
Now … about TR’s quote-unquote “friendliness to all races.” If you listened to the “History Vs. TR” episode of this podcast, you’ll remember just how complicated and sometimes contradictory TR’s views on race were. But simply put, TR held white supremacist and racist views that were shaped by his childhood, the books he read, his education, and his correspondence with scientists. Roosevelt developed a theory of the stages of civilization, a racial hierarchy that put the white, English-speaking man on top.
According to historian William S. Walker in Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders, Fraser’s statue is basically a visual representation of the prevalent thinking about race at the time—a “troubling hierarchy of human groups that places whites above Indigenous peoples and other people of color on a universal scale of human civilization,” he writes. “The statue’s symbolism corresponds with overtly racist statements Roosevelt made in his writings … and actions he took, such as his wrongful condemnation and punishment of Black soldiers after the Brownsville affair in 1906. Moreover, the racial imagery of Fraser’s statue matches the dominant paternalistic attitudes that many whites, including Roosevelt, displayed toward people of color in the early 20th century.”
We’ve covered a lot of the frankly horrible things Roosevelt said about other races in previous episodes of the podcast, but right now, I want to look at just a few examples of what he said about Black people, to show just how contradictory his thinking could be.
The first is from remarks he made in February 1905: “Our effort should be to secure to each man, whatever his color, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment before the law. As a people striving to shape our actions in accordance with the great law of righteousness we cannot afford to take part in or be indifferent to the oppression or maltreatment of any man who, against crushing disadvantages, has by his own industry, energy, self-respect, and perseverance struggled upward to a position which would entitle him to the respect of his fellows, if only his skin were of a different hue."
Sounds pretty good, right? But. In 1906, Roosevelt wrote in a letter to Owen Wister that Black people “as a race and as a mass … are altogether inferior to the whites.” And in 1916, he wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge, “I believe that the great majority of Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for the suffrage.” Extending them that right, he said, could “reduce parts of the South to the level of Haiti.”
Historian Thomas Dyer breaks down TR’s thoughts on a number of races in depth in his book, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, and if you want more information than I’ll ever be able to deliver here, you should definitely pick it up.
Dyer notes that while Roosevelt didn’t support segregation or disenfranchisement of Black Americans, and while he championed specific Black individuals, like Minnie Cox, there’s no question that Roosevelt felt that Black people as a whole were inferior to white people. And he believed it was the white man’s job to help the Black man become as civilized as the white man—a process that he believed would take an extremely long time.
However, according to Dyer, Roosevelt shouldn’t be lumped in with the deeply racist politicians of the Deep South, but instead was “associated with the group of theorists who promoted the vision of racial equipotentiality and with those politicians who publicly deplored the oppression of American Blacks yet opposed ‘social equality,’” Dyer writes. “Thus, although Roosevelt may have been a moderating force in an age of high racism, he nevertheless harbored strong feelings about the inferiority of Blacks, feelings which suggest the pervasiveness of racism and the harsh character of racial ‘moderation’ in turn-of-the-century America.”
Though these may have been prevalent views at the time, and while one could try and justify Roosevelt’s racist views by saying that he was a product of his time, there were plenty of people at that time, like Jane Addams and William English Walling, who did not agree with these views, who were much more progressive on this particular issue than Roosevelt was.
We’ll be right back.
Right around the time the museum’s “Addressing the Statue” exhibit went up in July 2019, I spoke with David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American Archaeology, Division of Anthropology at AMNH. Here’s what he had to say about the statue and the exhibit:
David Hurst Thomas: It was put up by the state of New York, memorializing a governor who went on to become a president. Our entire western facade is dedicated to the career of Theodore Roosevelt. And as you walk along there, you know, there are sculptures, there are all sorts of things, but the standalone one of Roosevelt on the horse with the African and the Native American walking along sent one message in the 1930s when it was put up and it sends a different message today to many people. So we're trying to come to grips with that. What are the different points of view here? What does that tell us about where we were then and where we are now?
In the exhibit, the museum grappled with what it called Roosevelt’s “troubling views on race” and its “own imperfect history,” saying that “Such an effort does not excuse the past but it can create a foundation for honest, respectful, open dialogue.”
In a recent statement, the museum said it was proud of the exhibition, “which helped advance our and the public’s understanding of the statue and its history and promoted dialogue about important issues of race and cultural representation, but in the current moment, it is abundantly clear that this approach is not sufficient. While the statue is owned by the city, the museum recognizes the importance of taking a position at this time. We believe that the statue should no longer remain and have requested that it be moved.”
Theodore Roosevelt IV, TR’s great-grandson and a museum trustee, supports the statue’s removal, as does New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who said in a statement that "the city supports the museum's request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue."
It hasn’t yet been decided when the statue will be removed, or where it will go. And the museum isn’t completely cutting ties with TR. Instead, it will name its Hall of Biodiversity for Roosevelt “in honor of [his] role as a leading conservationist.”
It’s possible that Roosevelt would have preferred this memorialization to any statue. Michael Cullinane, the historian and author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost who I interviewed for this podcast, wrote in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post that “Theodore Roosevelt never wanted a statue. Long before he died, he left strict instructions to his wife and children that no likeness of himself—equestrian or otherwise—appear in stone or bronze. He even fought a memorial group that sought to preserve his birthplace in New York City. … As a historian Roosevelt knew that the past necessarily gets rewritten. He anticipated an ever-changing legacy.”
Clay Jenkinson, who I interviewed for several episodes, also emphasizes this point in a new book of essays he co-edited, called Theodore Roosevelt, Naturalist in the Arena. He points out that, in 1910, when North Dakotans wanted to erect a statue to TR, Roosevelt suggested that a pioneer or pioneer family would be more appropriate.
And in 1916, Roosevelt wrote a letter against building monuments to the dead, saying, “There is an occasional great public servant to whom it is well to raise a monument; really not for the man himself, but for what he typified. A monument to Lincoln or Farragut is really a great symbolic statue to commemorate such qualities as valor and patriotism and love of mankind, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the right … As for the rest of us who, with failures and shortcomings, but according to our lights, have striven to lead decent lives, if any friends of ours wish to commemorate us after death the way to do it is by some expression of good deeds to those who are still living. Surely a dead man or woman, who is a good man or woman, would wish to feel that his or her taking away had become an occasion for real service for the betterment of mankind, rather than to feel that a meaningless pile of stone, no matter how beautiful, had been erected with his or her name upon it in an enclosure crowded with similar piles of stone—for such a tomb or mausoleum often bears chief reference not to the worth, but to the wealth of the one who is dead.” In fact, after TR’s own death, Jenkinson notes that “his family was lukewarm, sometimes outright negative, about commemorative statues.”
That’s not to say he was against being honored altogether. Jenkinson notes that Roosevelt was thrilled when, in 1911, a dam in Arizona was named after him. “I do not know if it is of any consequence to a man whether he has a monument: I know it is of mighty little consequence whether he has a statue after he is dead,” Roosevelt said. “If there could be any monument which would appeal to any man, surely it is this. You could not have done anything which would have pleased and touched me more than to name this great dam, this reservoir site, after me.”
“The unmistakable sense one gets from reading Roosevelt on this subject is that he wanted his historical memory to be tied to civic, even civilizational achievement,” Jenkinson writes, “and that the giant cyclopean dam in the Arizona desert—named in his honor for his vision, his Americanism, his legislative mastery, and his love of the American West—appealed to him as the right way to pay tribute to his life and work."
If the Theodore Roosevelt Facebook group I’m in is any indication, opinions about the statue’s removal are heated. To be frank, most people in there are quite angry. But I, for one, think it could be a good thing.
Hear me out. Though I’m fascinated by TR, it’s probably clear by now that he was not without his flaws. He was obsessed with his image and wasn’t above asking his friends to gloss over the facts to paint his life and his accomplishments in the best light. He felt he knew what was right and did not often want to admit when he’d been wrong. He could be as bitter and as nasty as he could be kind. And his views on race ranged from deeply paternalistic to openly racist. But understanding those views is important.
As historian and assistant professor at the University of Virginia Justene Hill Edwards said when I interviewed her:
Dr. Justene Hill Edwards: We live in a country, that from the very beginning, has been polarized along issues of race. And so, yes, it is important to understand our public figures and political figures' perspectives on race because it's such an important part, in my mind, of what it means to be American, thinking about these questions because it's an indelible part of the American story. It would be like not understanding, you know, the Civil War, or the American Revolution, or our participation in World War I or II.
Like many historical figures, TR was a person—an incredibly complex person. He did both good things and bad things, and those things should be considered together. Here’s Edwards again:
Edwards: He did amazing things for idealizing and realizing the beauty of America's natural landscapes, right, for ideas of conservation, that's really important. And we don't have to denigrate that legacy with his more problematic legacy on race. And so I think it's important to view historical figures as they were. They're complex people with complex inner-workings of their lives, and it's just important to understand that human complexity.
In order to even get close to a full picture of TR, we need to consider all of the sides of him rather than picking the parts that support the vision of him that we prefer. History, like TR, is complicated. I think the statue’s removal spurs us to grapple with all of that, as well as with America’s own racist history, and that’s important. Which is why I hope that, even if the statue will one day be gone, AMNH will keep its exhibit about the work around so visitors can learn from it for decades to come.
As Cullinane wrote, the statue “indicates nothing of Roosevelt’s environmental legacy. Rather, it symbolizes the least appealing aspect of his natural history philosophy.” I think Cullinane nailed it when he said, “If we honor complex figures, we should make sure we do so in ways that emphasize their enduring contributions, not their worst failures.”
As Jenkinson points out, TR’s legacy isn’t in a single statue—in fact, it’s all around us. “Theodore Roosevelt’s monumental footprint can be found in nearly every state in America,” Jenkinson writes. “While some of it is appropriately visible … still more is quietly enshrined in the U.S. Navy, in the National Park Service, in the modern identity of the American presidency, and in countless landscapes, parks, and forests across the Western Hemisphere. No other president has such a legacy. No other president even comes close.”
I’ll leave you with something TR expressed to Cecil Spring Rice in 1905, on the occasion of his Secretary of State John Hays’s death: “It is a good thing to die in the harness at the zenith of one’s fame, with the consciousness of having lived a long, honorable, and useful life,” he wrote. “After we are dead, it will make not the slightest difference whether men speak well or ill of us. But in the days and hours before dying it must be pleasant to feel that you have done your part as a man and have not yet been thrown aside as useless, and that your children and children’s children, in short all those that are dearest to you, have just cause for pride in your actions.”
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking and additional research by Austin Thompson.
The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.
The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.
The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website atmentalfloss.com/historyvs.
History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.