Frances Cathryn is an editor, museum worker, and community organizer who fights to recontextualize stories as they’ve been told to us. Her work confronting racist histories and the myth of neutrality in museums helped her start wip projects, where she looks forward to building something different.
Since George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, hundreds of thousands of people across the country have poured into the streets daily to demand an end to brutality against Black Americans and to call for transformative change in our institutions. But hiding in plain sight in plazas and parks, the backdrop to many of these protests, stand symbols of the long history of inequality in our society and of the hard fight ahead of us.
On June 3, over 2,000 people gathered at Academy Green in Kingston, a small triangular park between Uptown and Midtown, to walk in support of Black lives. Behind the event’s main speakers, who rose to call for the end of police violence, three cast-bronze men cast a shadow over the defiant and revolutionary atmosphere.
Why did these statues seem so out of place? Because these outsized figures are symbols of New York State’s history of colonization, enslavement, and state-sanctioned discrimination. Peter Stuyvesant tried to eject Jewish refugees fleeing persecution, calling them a “deceitful race.” Governor George Clinton, who also has a building named after him across the street, owned eight enslaved African Americans. And Henry Hudson, the region’s namesake, colonized the Lenape territory for the Dutch East India Company.
Across the nation and around the world, communities are reevaluating what’s important to them and removing symbols to white supremacy, oppression, and systemic racism where they live. Memorials to Confederate generals are toppling across the South. On June 3, Philadelphians pulled down a statue of their notoriously racist former mayor and police commissioner, Frank Rizzo. And on June 7, anti-racism protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and dumped the oppressive figure into the harbor nearby. (Colston has since been fished out, and is destined for a museum, spray-painted face and all.)
The dismantling of these monuments can be seen as part of a larger commemorative justice movement, which seeks to conscientiously redefine place-based narratives. The concept encourages communities to reimagine what our public spaces say about our values—who and what we are willing to put on a pedestal (such as the 10 US army bases named after Confederate generals).
The irony is that the statues in Academy Green were never commissioned to commemorate Kingston’s history. They were intended for scrap after a Manhattan bank was renovated in the 1940s, but then were purchased and rededicated to Ulster County.
Black history is American history. We need to make room for Black stories in our collective memories. Removing the three statues in Academy Green and replacing them with monuments to silenced voices in Kingston’s history can be part of the larger work toward racial justice—in our city as well as in our society.
When local activists of color and young Black students gather at Academy Green and call for the acknowledgment of their basic civil rights in front of an enslaver, it serves as a reminder of the present precarity of Black and brown lives in all spaces, and how we as a society fail to keep them safe.
Let’s use the significance of this moment in history to acknowledge our violent past and institute radical change. Removing monuments to oppression in our communities and building new ones isn’t a new idea—and it’s only a small part of the work. But taking that first step requires the kind of boldness of thinking that will lead to an even greater reimagining of our world and how we want to live in it.