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Should Thomas Jefferson come down?

Hofstra University, where I am a professor in the School of Education, was recently in the national news, largely thanks to exiled Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. A Hofstra student posted a petition demanding that the university remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, because he was a slave owner who sexually exploited an enslaved black teenager with whom he had a number of children – a woman and her children who he kept enslaved. Student groups participated in a university-sponsored forum where multiple positions were aired and over 100 students demonstrated in front of the statute demanding its removal on Friday, March 30.

Right-wing O’Reilly constantly posts about how American colleges and universities are controlled by “liberal ideologies and professors.” He alerted his followers via Twitter that “at Hofstra University on Long Island, a Black Lives Matter person will lead a demonstration demanding that a statue of Old Tom be removed.” He also followed up with a report on his “NoSpin News,” which you have to pay to view.

According to Hofstra junior Ja’Loni Owens, who posted the petition and ignited the debate over the Jefferson statue, “Just because you are in a position of power or a position of leadership or people look up to you, doesn’t mean you are a good person. That’s why we’re kind of here just to remind people even if it’s not in a history book, even if you don’t want to look at it – it happened." 

Hofstra University issued a statement saying, “The right to peaceful protest and assembly is at the core of our democracy. Hofstra supports our students’ right to engage in peaceful demonstrations about issues that matter to them. We look forward to continuing a civil exchange of ideas and perspectives on the subject.” It also announced that Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz would meet with interested students to discuss how to move forward on the issue “in a way that respects and recognizes the diverse views on this subject.” In 2007, after similar protests, the university sponsored an international competition that led to the creation of its Frederick Douglass Circle with a bronze statue of Douglass created by sculptor Vinnie Bagwell.

I frequently post blogs advocating for the removal of statues commemorating Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Southern segregationists, because the monuments and place names celebrate people who supported and went to war to defend slavery, Jim Crow laws and the oppression of black people. I also challenge statues and place names in the North, especially the statue of Dr. James Marion Sims, now scheduled to be removed from New York City’s Central Park, because of his complicity with slavery. But I don’t think Hofstra should remove the Jefferson statue.

Jefferson did horrible things. He owned slaves. He defended slavery. He kept an enslaved black teenager, Sally Hemings, as his mistress. He kept his children with her in bondage while he was alive. He believed blacks could never be the equal of whites. He kept his faltering Monticello plantation afloat and paid his debts by splitting up families and supplying enslaved Africans to the domestic slave trade.

But unlike Confederate generals and Southern segregations, Jefferson is not commemorated for his racism, but as the author of the Declaration of Independence. It is telling that in his 1963 “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., quotes Jefferson. Instead of rejecting Jefferson, King demands that the dream of human equality expounded by Jefferson in the Declaration be extended to include everyone.

I have two recommendations for how to address the multiple reality of Thomas Jefferson. I think Hofstra should install a bronze plaque next to the statue explaining who and what Jefferson was, the debate over his legacy and why the university chooses to keep the statue in a prominent place. This is the solution agreed on in New York City for how to address the legacy of Christopher Columbus. I would also like to see another statue in the plaza celebrating a freedom fighter that unabashedly opposed slavery and racism. I think the best candidate is Harriet Tubman, but it would also be nice to have a Martin Luther King Jr. statue on campus.

April Francis, a Hofstra alumna, a social studies teacher and supervisor on Long Island, and a woman of color, emailed me after learning of the events at Hofstra. Francis agreed I could include her comments in this blog. She wrote that the “issue of removing the Thomas Jefferson statute was intriguing to me civically, personally, and professionally. Civically, I find it applaudable that the young adults at Hofstra are being informed citizens and taking action—vital skills we strive to instill in our students through social studies education. Professionally, I see this as a teachable moment to include as a deliberation for students in my courses. And personally, though I never noticed the statute while a student at Hofstra University, it has made me question my personal beliefs and stance on this national topic—removal of controversial historical statutes, namely slaveholders and Confederates, in our nation.

“When I teach U.S. history, I allow students the opportunity to investigate Thomas Jefferson through primary and secondary resources including his contributions to our system of government (Declaration of Independence), his beliefs on African American intellect (his letter to Benjamin Banneker in 1791), his forced relationship with the enslaved woman Sally Hemings (Monticello Exhibition video) and his views on Native American removal (letter to Alexander von Humboldt in 1813). We then discuss whether he should grace our currency or be celebrated based on what they learned about him. Each year student responses are mixed. All believe him to be a hypocrite – yet many view what he wrote to be more important than how he lived.”

Creating historically correct plaques and erecting new statutes will build inquiry and deliberations amongst those in our society. It will foster educated discussions on “hard history” topics that will allow our new generation to reflect on the issues we are seeing today. Through these discussions we can strive to continue moving forward, instead of increasing polarization in our present society. In the case of Hofstra, placing a statute of Martin Luther King Jr., who once visited the university in the ‘60s, or Sojourner Truth – a New York born enslaved woman who became an abolitionist and women’s suffragist — would be a step in balancing out who and what we celebrate in our society.


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