A controversial statue of former president Theodore Roosevelt at the entrance of Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History was vandalized with red paint early on Wednesday.
Building security informed police a few minutes after midnight that two people – a woman and a man – had sprayed the base of the bronze statue with paint before running off southbound on Central Park West.
The NYPD said it was still investigating and that the suspects were unknown as of Thursday morning.
The incident came less than a week before Columbus Day, which has in years past drawn protests to the statue by activists calling for its removal, and more than four months after city officials confirmed it would be relocated.
Vandals defaced the Theodore Roosevelt statue outside Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History Wednesday morning, spraying its base with red paint (pictured)
Police said two people, a man and a woman, had defaced the statue, and that the suspects were currently unknown
Unveiled in 1940, the statue, sculpted by James Earl Fraser was intended to ‘celebrate Theodore Roosevelt as a devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history,’ the museum says on its website, and notes that Roosevelt’s father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., was one of the museum’s founders.
The statue has long been criticized, however, for its depiction of Roosevelt on horseback alongside a black man and Native American, which critics have said signifies a racial hierarchy in which Roosevelt stands higher than the other two.
After years of protests, in June, 2020, amid the demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd, the city vowed to have the statue removed.
The statue has been similarly defaced before. In 2017 it was also vandalized with red paint (pictured) by activists calling for its removal
A year later, on June 21, 2021, the The New York City Public Design Commission voted unanimously to relocate the statue to a yet-to-be-designated cultural institution dedicated to Roosevelt’s life and legacy, although when the statue will be moved has not been announced.
The museum on its website says, ‘the time line for this work is being finalized, and removal is expected in the coming months.’
Roosevelt’s legacy has been cast in a new light in recent years, with his support of eugenics entering the spotlight as anti-racism protests took hold of the country following the killing of George Floyd.
The statue’s removal comes as monuments to figures now deemed racist or problematic by activists have been removed from sites across the country.
Bowing to pressure from the protestors on June 21, 2021, the New York City Public Design Commission voted unanimously to relocate the statue
In particular, statues of Confederate figures in the South have been toppled in the wake of the police killing Floyd, which sparked nationwide protests demanding an end to systemic racism.
‘Cowboy’ president who set up America’s first National Park but has been blasted by anti-racism activists for his support of eugenics
Theodore Roosevelt at Yellowstone Park. He was the founder of the national parks system
Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th president of the United States from 1901 to 1909.
The Republican, whose face is depicted on Mount Rushmore alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, is credited with laying the groundwork for the modern Democratic party.
Roosevelt had developed a ‘cowboy’ image and that of a brave, masculine warrior during his presidency.
In more recent years, however, Roosevelt’s legacy has been viewed through a more critical lens.
Roosevelt during a campaign rally speech in 1900. He served as president from 1901 to 1909
He was a vocal supporter of eugenics, with a belief in white superiority, and that the poor and criminals should be sterilized to prevent procreation.
When he famously fought in Cuba as part of the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War of 1898, he would refuse to give credit to the African American soldiers that historians say were crucial to victory after his disastrous decision in battle to charge up San Juan hill.
He would write in his memoir that black soldiers could only be effective when led by white officers, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Detractors have also said that Roosevelt’s establishment of the national parks system came at the expense of some Native American tribes, who were displaced during many of the parks’ founding.
Roosevelt with the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War. His detractors said his actions there led to further American interventions in Latin America
Other critiques of Roosevelt’s legacy involve his imperialist tendencies, and that his involvement in the war would pave the way for further, colonial interventions in the Phillipines, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico, according to the New York Times.
His progressive policies, however, leveled the playing field between rich and poor, and this mantle would be carried forward in the modern liberalism of his cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.
Statues that paid tribute to the likes of Christopher Columbus, Robert E. Lee and George Washington were among those removed or defaced during anti-racism protests.
While there’s no official number of statues taken down over the last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center previously revealed that 168 Confederate symbols were removed in 2020, including 94 monuments.
The Roosevelt statue has been defaced at least twice before, including once in 2017, when it was doused with red liquid representing blood.
In the 1970s, it was also defaced amid protests against Roosevelt’s foreign policy that led to interventions in Central America and the Caribbean.
A mayoral commission in 2017 discussed the statue, but failed to decide on removing it from the premises. About half wanted the statue removed, while others proposed to leave it with added context or conduct more research for it.
Nevertheless, the commission wrote, ‘Height is power in public art, and Roosevelt’s stature on his noble steed visibly expresses dominance and superiority over the Native American and African figures.’
In 2019, the museum ran an exhibit about the statue and how it was perceived by the public
The ‘Addressing the Statue’ exhibition opened up a conversation with museum attendees about the place of the statue in today’s world.
Objections to the statue grew more forceful in recent years, especially after the murder of George Floyd that sparked a racial reckoning and a wave of protests across the U.S.
In June 2020, museum officials proposed removing the statue. The museum is on city-owned property and Mayor Bill de Blasio supported removal of the ‘problematic statue.’
‘The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior,’ de Blasio said at the time.
‘The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.’
That decision came around the same time that Americans were reckoning with the existence of other statues around the country.
The museum released a statement at the time, saying, ‘Over the last few weeks, our Museum community has been profoundly moved by the ever-widening movement for racial justice that has emerged after the killing of George Floyd.
‘We also have watched as the attention of the world and the country has increasingly turned to statues and monuments as powerful and hurtful symbols of systemic racism.
‘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, a great-grandson of the former president, released a statement to the New York Times last June as well.
‘The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice, the museum trustee said.
‘The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the statue and move forward.’
Governor Andrew Cuomo also backed the decision to remove the statue.
Donald Trump was among those opposed to the removal of the statue at the time, tweeting, ‘Ridiculous, don’t do it!’
More than 150 protesters gathered outside New York’s Museum of Natural History last June in an effort to save a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt from being removed.
During the hour-long demonstration speakers made the case for keeping the bronze effigy of Roosevelt firmly in its place at the Museum’s entrance.
A group of counter-protesters arrived soon after, organized by a black Evangelical group from Georgia, to support the removal of the statue which they called ‘glorified colonialism.’
Counter protesters carried ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs and also had speakers make their argument for the removal of the statue.
Museum officials said they were pleased with the commission’s vote in a prepared statement emailed Wednesday and thanked the city.
Sam Biederman of the New York City Parks Department said at the meeting Monday that although the statue ‘was not erected with malice of intent,’ its composition ‘supports a thematic framework of colonization and racism.’
Roosevelt, a pioneering conservationist, was a founding member of the institution.
Gothamist previously asked the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in Manhattan about taking on the statue.
‘At this moment, the National Park Service has no comment,’ was the given response.
Roosevelt also has a presidential library in North Dakota, which could potentially serve as a new site for the statue.