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Community Renews Push to Remove Statue of Man Who Experimented on Slaves

By Dartunorro Clark | September 24, 2016 9:57am | Updated on September 26, 2016 7:17am
 J. Marion Sims developed a surgery to treat a serious condition called vesicovaginal fistula, which sometimes occurs during childbirth, Regarded as the
J. Marion Sims developed a surgery to treat a serious condition called vesicovaginal fistula, which sometimes occurs during childbirth, Regarded as the "father of modern gynecology," Sims conducted experiments on slave women without anesthesia.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM – East Harlem residents are renewing a campaign to remove a statue of a man who experimented on enslaved women of color, and are calling on city officials to back their efforts at a neighborhood "speak out" on Sunday.

The bronze statue of J. Marion Sims, which stands at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 103rd Street, has been under fire for years by residents who say it honors a man who actively harmed slaves in his pursuit of medical history.

Although Sims is regarded as the “father of modern gynecology,” historians have noted his honorific title came at the expense of conducting experiments on enslaved black women without anesthesia. 

Marina Ortiz of East Harlem Preservation, one of the groups sponsoring the event, said African American and Puerto Rican men and women have historically been the subject of medical experiments without permission or regard to health.

In a neighborhood that is majority black and Hispanic, many see the statue as a blatant affront to the community, Ortiz said.

“Dr. Sims is not our hero," said Marina Ortiz of East Harlem Preservation, one of the groups sponsoring the event. "There are many African American and Puerto Rican men and women of medicine and science who could better represent this community.”

Organizers from East Harlem Preservation and the Laundromat Project hope Sunday's “speak out,” which starts at 2 p.m. and features a performance by artist Francheska Alcantara, will draw attention to Sims' deeds and lead to the removal of the statue.

Sims developed a surgery to treat a serious condition called vesicovaginal fistula, which sometimes occurs during childbirth, and developed a speculum to aid in the surgery. He also opened the country's first hospital devoted to women. 

The campaign to remove the statue began in 2007 with petitions after the publication of Harriet Washington’s book "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present," which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

Washington previously told DNAinfo New York that her research revealed that medical mores of the time did require consent, and that some of Sims' contemporaries objected to his methods.

CB11 this past June voted in favor of its removal. 

The Parks Department said it does not remove statues based on content, but is working to add information about the slaves he experimented on without their consent.

“That said, we take seriously our role as educators," said Parks Department spokesman Sam Biederman. "We are working with our community partners to determine the best way to recognize the enslaved women whom Dr. Sims exploited to achieve important medical advances, and make park users aware of the history and context of the statue."

Ortiz, however, said that it’s not enough.

“That’s exactly what they said in 2011, they said we’re going to work on language with an additional plaque,” she said. “The community doesn’t want a plaque and they want the statue removed.”

Ortiz also noted, the statue arrived in East Harlem from Bryant Park after it was removed in 1934 by former city officials during the park’s renovation, according to the department’s website and archival records.

The campaign is urging support from Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

“For too long, J. Marion Sims' medical atrocities against enslaved African American women have been overlooked and ignored,” said Robin Levine, the speaker’s spokeswoman. “We look forward to productive conversations with the Parks Department, the Community Board and East Harlem residents as we work to ensure Sims’ unethical conduct is not forgotten.”

But, Ortiz called the statement “vague” and pointed to a letter of support from 2011 — before Mark-Viverito was speaker — that was forceful in calling for the removal of the statue.

“I'd really like to know if she is in fact in favor of removing the statue or not,” Ortiz said. “I think we need a really firmer response from the Speaker.”

DNAinfo asked Levine for clarification on the speaker's position. She did not respond to the request for comment.