America’s public monuments are in greater peril than at any moment since the country’s birth, when a statue of King George III on horseback was pulled down by a mob, who melted its lead to make musket balls for the coming war for independence. In recent years, it is Confederate generals who have come under threat. Hundreds of such statues have had their removal proposed in local petitions, signed by citizens who have begun to wonder why someone who takes up arms against this country in the name of slavery ought to be so honored. After August’s violent white-supremacist protest in Charlottesville, a number of Confederate statues were veiled, or whisked away to dark storage basements. One was yanked to the ground by a mob.
Bronze incarnations of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson have borne the brunt of this assault, but statues of scientists are also being singled out for rough treatment. In August, vandals defaced a Central Park statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century surgeon, widely considered the “father of modern gynecology,” who experimented on enslaved women, performing repeated operations on them—up to 30 in the case of Anarcha Wescott, all without anesthesia—after soliciting their participation from their owners. “RACIST” was scrawled on Sims’s bronze likeness. His neck and eyes were also dabbed with red paint, giving him the look of a ghoul or demon. The vandalism followed a peaceful protest, at which several young women wore hospital gowns smeared with fake blood.