As the controversy over Confederate statues continues following the violent white nationalist rally over a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, remnants and memorials of the Civil War have been toppled across the country. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a “90-day review of all symbols of hate on city property.” Already, the busts of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee – two Confederate generals and slaveholders – have been set for removal from Bronx Community College’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
Yet New York activists push for another statue to be included in the review, the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, known as the “Father of Modern Gynecology.” An antebellum doctor, Sims was the first to develop a functional technique to repair vesicovaginal fistulas in women, which often resulted from childbirth and led to incontinence, scarring, and loss of vaginal function. However, in perfecting his technique to use on white patients, Sims first experimented medically on enslaved African-American women – with neither the women’s consent nor anesthesia.
In her book, Medical Apartheid: the Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Harriet Washington tells the gruesome story of these women: “Each naked, unanesthetized slave woman had to be forcibly restrained by other physicians through her shrieks of agony as Sims determinedly sliced, then sutured her genitalia.”
The statue of Sims in New York City was originally placed in Bryant Park in 1894 before moving in 1934. It is now located across the New York Academy of Medicine in East Harlem, reminding residents of yet another example of brutal violence and oppression committed not only against African-Americans, but in a similar situation, on Puerto Ricans as well. For years, the area’s community board debated with the Department of Parks and Recreation over changing the words beneath the statue to provide more historical context. Finally, over a year ago, the community board decided that they simply wanted the statue taken down.
In the past, officials of the Department of Parks and Recreation have said that the statue would not be taken down because of disagreeable content. Due to recent events and Mayor de Blasio’s 90-day review, however, long-time activists against the statue hope that Dr. Sims will finally be removed. On August 19th, members of Black Youth Project 100 held a protest that would later go viral, lining up in front of the statue in hospital gowns stained with fake blood. Though this particular protest received attention online, it is only one of numerous demonstrations and organizations against the statue in the past few years.
Marina Ortiz, who helped lead the campaign against the statue by East Harlem Preservation, spoke to the New York Times about the community anger: “We are people who have been historically subjected to this experimentation,” she said. “That’s why the Sims statue doesn’t belong in a predominantly black and Latino community. It’s outrageous.”
To take an online survey, email a letter of support, or contact the New York City Parks Department about the statue, check the East Harlem Preservation’s page.
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