With the Black Lives Matter movement over the past month following the late-May death of George Floyd during an arrest by the Minneapolis police, statues and monuments celebrating historically controversial figures are toppling across the country and around the globe. The three statues in Kingston’s Academy Green are at the center of the local discussion, with protestors often gathered around the monuments to Henry Hudson, George Clinton and Peter Stuyvesant.
Frances Cathryn, who founded the Kingston Monument Project to bring light to the history of the men the statues are meant to honor, started a petition calling for the removal of the statues. It thus far has obtained 3480 signatures of support.
“I attended the first Black Lives Matter rally that was organized by high schoolers shortly after George Floyd’s murder,” explained Cathryn. “It struck me immediately the dissonance between the statues behind the speakers at the rally and the message the speakers were trying to express.”
Making public spaces safe
A museum worker, she did research on the men these statues represent, and on what role the statues’ installation has played in Kingston over time. “And I decided that whatever meaning that they had had to the community, it was more important that our public places create a safe space for the people who use them more than the possibility of an educational tool that these figures can represent.”
Stuyvesant, director general of the colony of New Netherland, in an effort to eject Jewish refugees fleeing the Inquisition in 1654, called them a “deceitful race.”
Hudson colonized the Lenape territory for the Dutch East India Trading Company.
Clinton, a governor of New York who would become vice-president under presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, owned eight enslaved African Americans.
Cathryn created a web page devoted to the Kingston Monument Project in an effort “to give people even more information about the role that these statues serve and get people thinking more about what these symbols represent in our community and what it means to name things or to represent figures in our history that can be psychologically harmful to members of the community.”
Her aim was for people to think more about who public spaces serve in Kingston, and how names were chosen.
The three statues, created by sculptor John Massey-Rhind, were sent to a scrapyard after their removal from the Exchange Court Building in Manhattan before being relocated to Kingston, where they were unveiled on Academy Green in June 1950. Academy Green is a triangular park within the intersections of Albany and Clinton avenues and Maiden Lane. It was once the site of the Kingston Academy, an early school which eventually became Kingston High School.
The park is owned by the Academy Green Association and maintained by the City of Kingston, an arrangement that also requires changes to be approved by the trustees of the Kingston Academy. The board approved the installation of the statues in 1950, and after much debate allowed a bus shelter to go up in 2006.
Community discussions planned
Kingston mayor Steve Noble said that the city will soon engage the community in talks about the statues. “Alderman Rennie Scott-Childress, along with city staff, are planning to host community discussions concerning the Academy Green statues,” Noble said. “We want to make sure we handle these discussions thoughtfully, with the utmost care and sensitivity to all those involved. These will likely be multiple small-scale meetings, bringing in various stakeholders and hearing all perspectives.”
The debate about the trio of statues has already unfolded in numerous venues, including on Academy Green itself, where according to a Facebook post, a mid-June group meeting of social action group Justice for Aleesa was interrupted by racist epithets shouted from passing cars.
“We had a horrible experience in the middle of our meeting!!,” reads the post. “Two different cars road (sic) past … who I guess assumed we were at Academy Green about the statues being knocked down and they yelled horrible things at us!! They yelled, The statues aren’t coming down, you monkeys …. One guy said he was coming back with a Confederate flag! We also counted twelve cop cars circling the park in the oneE hour we we were there …. It was disgusting and scary, especially since we were just hanging out eating pizza while Black!”
The post was followed by two videos.
Some express opposition
Cathryn said that she’s tried to shift the focus into a broader discussion.
“Now I’m truly trying to push people to feel empowered about our public spaces,” she said. “These statues don’t just symbolize an abstract threat. They really symbolize the everyday occurrences of violence, big or small, macro or micro aggressions that happened to people in Kingston.”
Some, like former majority leader on the City of Kingston’s Common Council Tom Hoffay, want to see the statues remain in Academy Green.
“Respectfully, I could not disagree more with the proposed destruction of the Academy Green statutes,” wrote Hoffay in response to a post dated June 11. “Nothing is gained by destroying the work that so many others have labored to produce for out (sic) community. Once destroyed, the opportunity to listen and learn and bring people together will be lost forever. It may feel good at the moment to release this negative energy and strike back and make a statement, but the harm done to the community will be permanent and divisive. I do not know the person or group promoting this rewriting of our history, but I can assure that harm will come of it.”
In response to the same post, Deborah Mills Thackrey said that she would like to see the statues remain, but would favor adding further monuments and plaques of clarification to give a balanced look at history. “Perhaps instead of destroying these works of art we could add plaques that discuss their accomplishments and failings in light of what we know now,” wrote Thackrey.
Taylor Bruck, official historian with the City of Kingston, did not respond to queries for comment on this story. But in a response to a June 7 post by Cathryn. he asked whether more statues couldn’t be added instead of removing those already in Academy Green.
“As Kingston historian I would hate to see these monuments destroyed,” Bruck wrote. “There is no museum in the city capable of accepting three giant statues. I won’t defend the actions of these men, but they are certainly prominent figures in our local history who should be taught and contemplated.”
Use them to teach about oppression, Brock wrote. To teach about colonization and the horrors that follow. “But please don’t destroy them. I propose we look into adding more, bring some diversity to the crowd and teach a more complete history of our area.”
Cathryn disagrees. “Frankly I don’t feel like they’re serving any sort of educational purpose right now,” she said. “Even if plaques were added or more statues were added for context, the point is that they symbolize a legacy of violence not just in this community but in greater New York State.”
For information on the Kingston Monument Project, visit: https://www.wip-projects.com/kingston-monument-project.