NYC’s Racist Roosevelt Statue Is Gone, But Concerns Over Its Relocation Remain

The long-disputed Theodore Roosevelt monument that loomed over the main entrance of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City for more than 80 years is finally gone.

In the wee hours of Tuesday, January 18, museum contractors winched the equestrian bronze of the former president from its base and moved it to a storage facility in the city. The site remains fenced off by scaffolding as work to remove the statue’s pedestal continues. The plaza around the removed statue — outlined by wall inscriptions describing Roosevelt as “Statesman,” “Historian,” “Humanitarian,” and “Patriot,” among other titles — will undergo restoration through the spring, the AMNH told Hyperallergic.

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Unveiled in 1940, James Earle Fraser’s bronze depicted Roosevelt in a heroic pose on horseback flanked by two shirtless, unnamed gun carriers: an Indigenous man to his right, and a Black man to his left. According to the museum’s website, the statue was meant to “celebrate Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) as a devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history.” The former president’s father was one of the museum’s founders, the institution adds, and says it is “proud of its historic association with the Roosevelt family.”

The racially-charged Roosevelt monument stood in from of the museum for over 80 years (Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

The monument’s removal comes after years of indecision by the city, which owns the bronze. In 2017, then-mayor Bill de Blasio formed an advisory commission to review the Roosevelt statue and other racist monuments across the city. After failing to reach a consensus, the committee’s final recommendation in 2018 was to keep the statute in place with additional interpretation and historical context. Based on those recommendations, the museum opened the exhibition Addressing the Statue in 2019. As part of the exhibition, a contextual plaque was added to the bronze. It partially read: “Some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy.”

In June of 2020, amid the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of racist monuments across the country, the AMNH announced that it would remove the contested statue. The decision was proposed by the museum and accepted by de Blasio. But it took another year of bureaucratic delays and inconclusive hearings until the NYC Public Design Commission finally voted on the statue’s removal in June of 2021, unanimously approving a proposal to relocate it to a then-unconfirmed institution dedicated to Roosevelt’s life and memory.”

The statue will be relocated to a yet-to-be-built Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota to the dismay of local tribe leaders (Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Last November, it was announced that the recipient organization would be the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, which is slated to open in 2026 in Medora, North Dakota. The privately-funded library will be built near Roosevelt’s former cattle ranch in western North Dakota and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Large parts of the park sit on land seized from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) people. 

The announcement drew outcry from tribal leaders who said they were not consulted about the relocation of the statue to their area.

“Via my office, nor any official other, the MHA Nation was not consulted,” Mark Fox, chairman of the MHA Nation, told Hyperallergic in November. “The statue has no significance to us in its origin or existence, other than what it is becoming now. Our MHA Nation would be discouraged and potentially offended if put in a place of prominence on or near our ancestral lands.”

Protesters shrouded the Roosevelt statue with a parachute in October of 2016 (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Demands to remove the Roosevelt date back to the early 1970s. Since then, the statue’s plinth was defaced with red paint three times: First in 1971 by Native American protesters; then again in 2017 by members of the group Monument Removal Brigade (MRB); and most recently by anonymous protesters in October of 2021.

In October of 2016, the group Decolonize This Place (DTP) organized the first Anti-Columbus Day tour inside the museum with other activist groups. The protesters shrouded the statue with a parachute and posed three demands to the city and museum: Rename Columbus Day, remove the Roosevelt monument, and “respect ancestors.” The last Anti-Columbus Day tour was held in 2019 and was attended by hundreds who marched from the AMNH to the Metropolitan Museum of Art through sites in Central Park.

Hundreds protested outside the American Museum of Natural History during the fourth annual Anti-Columbus Day tour in 2019 (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

In a statement to Hyperallergic this weekend, DTP lambasted the city’s plan to relocate the statue to North Dakota, saying: “The Roosevelt monument is New York’s problem, and New York should be dealing with it, not punting it to another state.”

“Indigenous communities in North Dakota don’t seem too happy about hosting a racist statue in a park that was carved out of their own stolen, ancestral lands,” the group continued. “We believe that the decision to send the monument to a site that is sacred and culturally important to the MHA Nation is either an act of breathtaking insensitivity or of metropolitan arrogance.”

The Theodore Roosevelt was defaced with red paint in October of 2021 (Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)
In 2019, the museum added a contextual plaque to the statue that partially read: “Some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy.” (Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

The MRB has also joined the voices opposing the relocation of the statue to North Dakota. In a statement, the group told Hyperallergic that the move “points to the broader settler-colonial order of the US as expressed, among other places, in the vast crime scene that makes up the National Park system in which Roosevelt and his white mythologies of ‘wilderness’ have played such a central role.” 

MRB went on to cite Theodore Roosevelt IV, a great-grandson of Roosevelt and current AMNH board member, who said, “The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the statue and move forward.’”

“On the contrary,” MRB continued. “It is precisely because the statue so perfectly embodies Roosevelt’s ongoing legacies in the present that it has been a site of such intensive antagonism over the decades, and why it will continue to be so long as it and its associated institutions exist.”

The group added that the planned relocation is “the exact opposite of a ‘move forward,’ and it throws into further relief the true stakes of the struggle to remove (and destroy) the monument.”  

The NYC Public Design Commission has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

AMNH visitors against the backdrop of the tarped scaffolding of the removed Roosevelt monument (Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Around noon of Saturday, January 22, a long line of AMNH visitors stretched around the scaffolding and down Central Park West as they waited to pass through a COVID-19 vaccination checkpoint set up on the museum’s front steps.

A man who identified himself as John Dewey was snapping iPhone pictures of the tarped scaffolding when he spoke with Hyperallergic. A resident of the Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the businessman and “aspiring writer” said he grew up admiring the statue as a child.

“The Twitter post I’m not sending is: That moment when you discover that a big part of your childhood isn’t so good,” he said.

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“But you said something different as we were crossing the street,” Dewey’s companion, a woman named April, interjected. “You said that people need to be judged by their times.”

“I don’t think it was racist at the time but by our present standards, it probably doesn’t belong in front of one of the richest museums in the world,” Dewey replied.

“It was a heroic statue for me as a child,” he explained. ‘This changes the landscape of the neighborhood. It’s like a mountain is suddenly gone.”

Museum visitors waiting in line to pass through the museum’s COVID vaccination checkpoint (Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Dewey was not the only visitor to cast doubts over the need to remove the statue. Maggie, a young New Yorker who works in sales, expressed her opinion more decisively.

“I think that history is meant to be learned from and Roosevelt was an important person in our history,” she said. “Just because he did something bad, it doesn’t mean that the statue needs to be taken down. It’s something we should learn from.”

Hyperallergic spoke with several other patrons, many of them out-of-towners, who said they had no strong opinion on the matter. A group of young students said they “didn’t even know that the statue was there.”

“I don’t think it was racist at the time,” one museum visitor told Hyperallergic about the Roosevelt monument (Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

A dissenting opinion finally came from Megan, a New York-based actor who was sitting on the museum’s stairs with an AMNH pamphlet in her hand.

“I agree that the statue should have been removed,” she said. “It’s part of a larger conversation about colonialist, racist monuments in the city. I think if we start with Roosevelt, the Columbus monuments in New York should be next.”

Asked if the museum should have acted earlier to remove the statue, Megan said: “Yes, but that’s how collective consciousness works, right?”

“The museum was not going to deem the statue as a threat to their business until there were enough people who rose up and said it should be taken down.”


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