The removal of busts of two prominent American Civil War generals from Bronx Community College is drawing mixed reactions from local leaders and raising new questions about the venerable Hall of Fame of Great Americans on the college’s campus.
Governor Cuomo called for the bronze busts of Confederacy generals Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and Robert E. Lee to be removed from their Fordham Heights perch following civil unrest in Charlottesville, VA and elsewhere over Confederate War statues that some say represent the nation’s racist past.
College president Thomas Isekenegbe confirmed the move in a statement posted on the college website.
“For 60 years, Bronx Community College…has remained committed to reflecting its values of diversity and inclusion in all of its actions and statements,” Isekenegbe said. “Embracing difference includes creating space were all people feel respected, welcomed and valued.”
Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. also applauded the move, arguing a more appropriate location for these two statues would be the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, where they could be presented in a historical context rather than venerated.
“Their inclusion at this location is especially galling,” Diaz said. “There is nothing great about two men who committed treason against the United States to fight to keep the institution of slavery intact.”
Mayor de Blasio announced the city will conduct a 90-day review of what he called symbols of hate in New York City.
But not everyone applauded the move.
Prominent Bronx Historian Lloyd Ultan said the move is misguided, since the generals were nominated due to their military achievements, not their loyalty to the Confederacy. The hall is the ideal place for such figures, he argued.
“They were chosen by people from every state in the union, and they were chosen because of their military contributions to strategy and tactics that are studied even today,” Ultan said. “Both Lee and Jackson are in the section honoring people in the military. In fact, Lee’s bust is right next to the bust of (Union general) Ulysses S. Grant.”
The hall is an inclusive entity, he added, and contains Americans of all races and ethnicities, including several African-American and Jewish American inductees.
Adding to their historic nature, Ultan added, is the fact that the busts were created by two of the most prominent sculptors of their day, Bryant Baker (Jackson) and George T. Brewster (Lee).
The first hall of fame in the nation, the Hall of Fame of Great Americans dates back to 1900, when it was built on what was then the Bronx campus of New York University.
The 630-foot long open-air colonnade was designed by architect Stanford White, who also designed the adjacent library building long considered one of the most iconic buildings in the borough.
The 98 individuals enshrined in the hall, including the two removed, were voted upon by a group of peers in their field from across the country.
The competition was fierce – newspapers and interest groups lobbied hard for candidates.
One such group, The United Daughters of the Confederacy, was responsible for the induction of General Jackson in 1955.
Unfortunately, due to legal battles over who actually owns the hall and oversees inductions and a lack of funding, the hall had gone untouched save occasional maintenance since 1973 until the recent removals.
The last four inductees: Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis; American Red Cross founder Clara Barton; agricultural scientist Luther Burbank and steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, have yet to have their bronze bust sculpted and added to the hall.
No announcement has been made on the fate of the two empty pillars that remain where Lee and Jackson busts once stood, or where the removed busts would be sent.
The removals also sparked questions over access to the public campus by members of the media.
J. B. Nicholas, a freelance reporter for the news website Gothamist, was arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave the campus after he was approached by security while interviewing students about the bust controversy. He plans to fight the charges.
Bronx Community College is overseen by City University of NY, a public, taxpayer-funded university system.
On Tuesday, August 22, this reporter walked onto campus and proceeded to the hall and began taking photos.
A security guard standing in the hall asked if I was a media member. When I confirmed that I was, I was told media were not allowed and ordered to leave the campus.
Bronx Community College legal counsel and deputy to college president Karla Renee said she would look into the incident.
“I have been in regular contact with the Chief of Public Safety and reporters are being allowed on campus to film and photograph the Hall,” she said in a statement. “I’m not sure why you would have been approached and asked to leave, but I am reaching out to Public Safety now to inquire further. I apologize for the confusion.”
Calls to Diaz for comment on the media-related incidents were not returned by press time.