Updated December 1st at 9:45 p.m.
In recent months, college students across the country have called for the renaming of buildings named after influential figures who promoted racism.
In November, Georgetown University students successfully pressured their administration to rename Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall because both of those buildings were named after Georgetown presidents who owned and sold slaves. This past week, students at Princeton University pressured their administration to rename both the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, a residential college, because of former President Woodrow Wilson's support for the Ku Klux Klan and federal workplace resegregation. Elsewhere in the country, students at the University of Missouri and the College of William & Mary have raised questions about their campuses' respective statues of Thomas Jefferson, in some cases arguing that they be taken down because of his sexist and racist actions.
Columbia houses its own statue of Jefferson. Constructed in 1914, it stands in front of Pulitzer Hall. Yet Columbia also intends "to create and promote a sense of belonging that permeates throughout all aspects of the campus community," a sense of belonging that should include all racial identities. It's clear that the statue of a slave owner runs counter to those very principles.
Jefferson's racism is well-documented. In addition to laying the groundwork for the United States, Thomas Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves at Monticello, his neoclassic mansion, and sold more than 110 slaves during his lifetime. In 1794, he launched his nailery and employed slave boys from 10 to 16 years of age and had them flogged and whipped for disobedience. And although his textile factory did not apply as much violence, he still forced young slave girls to spin and weave there.
To justify his ownership of slaves, Jefferson argued that black people's reasoning capabilities were "much inferior" to whites and stated that black people were "inferior to the whites in the endowment of body and mind." Jefferson also proposed restricting free blacks from entering or living in his home state of Virginia while he served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and considered free blacks to be "pests in society."
Although Jefferson did support the gradual emancipation of black people, he wanted to do so only to resettle black people in a colonized Africa and to create an exclusively white society in America.
The statue of Jefferson at Columbia commemorates him for drafting the Declaration of Independence, which laid the basis for our modern democracy by stating, "All men are created equal." Americans today interpret the Declaration of Independence as protecting the equality of all Americans. However, throughout his lifetime, Jefferson believed that "all men are created equal" implied that "all white freemen are created equal."
Even if commemorative statues are intended to praise selectively, commemorating Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence suggests that its racist, historical context should be lauded. The statue, though erected in praise of Jefferson's work as a Founding Father, tacitly honors the darker side of his history: the fact that he owned slaves during his entire lifetime and supported policies that denied the rights of black people.
Taking down the statue of Thomas Jefferson would declare that Columbia does not take pride in its racist past. Some Columbia students have been impacted by Jefferson's belief that black people are inferior to white people because the political beliefs he advanced prolonged and supported the institutions of slavery and racism in America.
Some proponents of architecture commemorating notably racist figures argue that we should approach their records with a cost-benefit analysis. These critics believe that the tremendous progress that influential figures have achieved outweighs their racist deeds. However, in the case of Columbia's statue of Jefferson, the tremendous progress in question is composing the Declaration of Independence with racist intentions.
The removal of the statue of Jefferson does not erase history; rather, it announces that Jefferson's understanding of the Declaration of Independence and his slave-owning past have no place on this campus. Now is the time to oust the statue of Jefferson on our campus to show, in the words of President Lee Bollinger, Columbia's "long and deep commitment to overcoming racism."
Brian Min is a Columbia College first-year planning to major in political science and women's and gender studies. He is a member of AllSex and the Undergraduate Committee on Global Thought. All I Do is Min runs alternate Mondays.
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