At the Rally to Save a Teddy Roosevelt Statue

People pause to view a statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, N.Y., June 22, 2020. (Mike Segar)
A group of about 150 gathered over the weekend to protest the removal of a statue honoring the 26th president.

I wish I could have been there on Sunday, October 27, 1940, for the dedication of the Equestrian Statue of Teddy Roosevelt at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The museum announced recently that it would remove the statue, owing to its supposed associations with imperialism and racial discrimination.

For the sculptor, James Earle Fraser, the bronze statue of Roosevelt on horseback personifies the dignity and prestige of the former president, with whom he had become acquainted in the early 1900s. The conservationist, hunter, rough-rider, and friend to Fraser would tower over Central Park West for decades to come, but he would not be alone. Teddy would share the plinth with two other figures — a Native-American chief and an African nobleman.

During the dedication, I would have asked Fraser to imagine a moment way down the line in the next century. How will Americans look upon your work in 2020? Perhaps a beaming Fraser might have given an optimistic answer: that future American citizens of various races, ethnicities, and creeds would celebrate the monument in accord with his original artistic intent. As he wrote about the work, “The two figures at [Roosevelt’s] side are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” Citizens, young and old, would admire their former president, flawed as he may have been, acknowledging the complex, often contradictory, views he held in office and throughout his life, while celebrating the statue’s august, progressive depiction of Native Americans and Africans. The statue would stand, uniting Americans through shared history. An optimistic answer, indeed.

This vision, of course, did not come to pass.

Fraser could not have foreseen that almost 80 years later, in the very same spot, on a blisteringly hot Sunday, two ideological factions would stand at odds with each other regarding the statue’s legacy and its future. One group shouted in unison, “Save Teddy!” and “Save our history!” Another group wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts and condemned the 26th president unequivocally. The former sought to reclaim the checkered past for the sake of the Republic. The latter wouldn’t mind if the statue never again saw the light of day, in a museum or elsewhere. This is the fruition of a more pessimistic answer that Fraser couldn’t have imagined — it is a microcosm of the American “culture war.”

Admittedly, I have staked out my position in the culture war. On Sunday, I stood with those who wish to see Teddy’s statue continue to stand. But before the protest, I had the privilege to speak with Dr. Harriet Senie, a distinguished professor of art history at City College in New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. Dr. Senie is also a member of the Mayoral Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers, the group advising Mayor de Blasio’s office on matters concerning monuments and public art in the City.

Although Dr. Senie and I probably disagree about many political issues, our conversation was refreshing, since it was precisely that — a conversation, not a screaming match.

Dr. Senie addressed aspects of Frazer’s career as a sculptor and the nuances in the statue’s allegorical meanings that have been largely ignored by media pundits and protesters alike. While acknowledging Roosevelt’s imperialist and racist views, and the possibility that Frazer may have slipped them into the statue’s form, Dr. Senie charitably interprets the accompanying figures. “They are in no way abject,” she said. “They’re rather regal.”

Frazer “intended these figures to mean allegorical representations of the continents, where Roosevelt hunted,” she said. She also noted that the “scarification” on the African figure is “indicative of a Prince or a person of higher status.”

For scholars and academics, the details never amount to clear-cut answers and interpretations. This detail props up one interpretation while that detail might provide evidence to the contrary.

“The African figure is a little more complicated than the Native American,” Dr. Senie continued, “because Frazer grew up with Native Americans. The Native American is definitely a composite of different tribes. And there were a lot of photographs of Native Americans around at the time.” However, Dr. Senie pointed out, the African’s head is African while the body is Western and classical — the figure Frazer would have learned in art school at the time.

Such distinctions arise in her meetings with the mayoral commission, though I reckon on the streets and social media, the battlegrounds of the American culture war, protesters and activists aren’t interested in historical perspectives. Dr. Senie spoke of the Equestrian Statue becoming a “lightning rod” issue. Point well taken.

But who’s to blame for this phenomenon? Can conversations exist in the public square when one side, the conservative, feels the crushing weight of the other’s cultural hegemony? Conservatives feel increasingly desperate, and are willing in some cases to take to the streets.

On Sunday, June 28, with much skin and soul in the game, 150 citizens gathered before the Equestrian Statue to stand up on Teddy’s behalf. If elected officials wouldn’t do it, they would. Among them: die-hard Trump supporters, older members of the Queens Village Republican Club, members of the Young America’s Foundation, an erudite art student, a teenager with a Trump yarmulke, and, of course, the rally’s main organizers, David Marcus and Gavin Wax, who called the “grassroots effort” a “motley crew of different New York characters from all stripes of life.” They held signs that read, “DEFEND THE STATUES” and, “Don’t Judge 20th Century People With Today’s Standards.” They chanted “Save Teddy!” They sang the national anthem.

I spoke to Marcus, a contributor to the Federalist. For him, the statue depicts “Theodore Roosevelt looking at a future when all Americans would just be Americans, not hyphenated, not black or white or anything else. That’s what these three figures are doing, that’s the future they are walking into.” Marcus would later speak with the bullhorn — his words were laconic and hopeful. “We are not step-siblings squabbling over the last will and testament of the United States. We are full-blooded brothers and sisters, and heirs to the most extraordinary experiment in freedom that the world has ever known.” Roars from the crowd ensued.

Wax, the charismatic president of the New York Young Republicans Club, delivered an equally energizing speech. “We’re here today because we’ve bettered ourselves as a society and we continue to better ourselves as a society,” he said. “But we’ll never be able to do that anymore if we continue to tear down our history and forget our past — and we’ll be doomed to repeat it.”

Following him, Phil Orenstein, the president of the Queens Village Republican Club, declared: “We are standing as proud Americans, saying no. We draw the line. We are going to stand up for our country and our statues.”

Although the number protesting Teddy’s removal clocked in around 150 or so —paling in comparison to BLM marches — I would, on any given Sunday, stand with these 150 patriotic dissidents. Protest by protest, each courageous act, however small, may help lift the American spirit above this hellish woke revolution and culture war.

Maybe June 28 will stand as this monument’s first, and last, rededication, even if it is purely in spirit. I asked David Marcus if he had any advice for younger conservatives — or any conservative, for that matter, young, middle-aged, elderly. His answer was stark. “Have courage,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”

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