Following a weekend filled with violence and bigotry in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month over the removal of Confederate statues, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Aug. 16 he would convene a task force to examine all statues in the city, marking specific ones that might be considered offensive or rooted in racism or bigotry.
While it remains unclear exactly what will happen after the task force concludes its report, a few statues already have made their way into public debate, including a statue of Christopher Columbus at the center of Columbus Circle, and a statue of J. Marion Sims — a gynecologist known for operating on slave women without anesthesia because he claimed black women could not feel pain — in Central Park.
But could one of those statues marked as “offensive” be right here in the Bronx?
Jennifer Scarlott, a local activist for Bronx Climate Justice North and the North Bronx Racial Justice Coalition, seems to think so.
She pointed out a statue of Henry Hudson on the northern most side of Henry Hudson Memorial Park.
“I have long been sort of awed by this massive statue of Henry Hudson in the park,” she said. “Sometimes at night when it is lit up, the dogs all bark at it because it looks like an actual man up in the sky.”
The monument to Hudson — the Dutch explorer who, while looking for the Northwest Passage, is credited as having entered upper New York Bay and sailed north up to Albany on a river that now bares his name — is massive. Although hidden by a mass of trees and hills in Spuyten Duyvil, the image of Hudson towers over most of them.
But it is not the image of Hudson atop the stone pillar that bothers Scarlott. Instead, it’s the engravings at eye-level, on the pillar’s base.
On the northern side of the statue, Karl Greppe — the artist who fashioned the images of Hudson in the 1930s — placed an engraving with what Scarlott says is a rather shocking. It features a group of Native Americans, one of who is nearly naked and kneeling at the feet of Hudson, his arms full of gifts.
“For a person like me who does work on racial justice issues … it is a jarring image,” Scarlott said.
One major problem with the graven image is that no one really seems to know exactly what it is depicting. Lloyd Ultan of the Bronx Historical Society said it’s certainly an odd image, especially since Hudson never set foot in Manhattan or the Bronx.
“He was looking for the Northwest Passage and he came down the East Coast of North America and then turned around and came north,” Ultan said. “There was a tremendous storm and he sought shelter in Spuyten Duyvil Creek. (The ship) wasn’t beached, but the water sort of tossed it around and it went aground twice.”
Although during his travels along what is now the Hudson River, Ultan said the explorer did stop off and trade with several Native American tribes for furs and other goods, which eventually became the reason the Dutch chose to settle on the land.
Historians know very little about Hudson’s interactions with Native Americans, Ultan said. But for the most part, they were pleasant.
Though some accounts say Hudson was untrusting of the natives and accused them of stealing, he twice found himself in armed combat against Native Americans — once near what is now Staten Island, and another near Albany.
But regardless of what the engraving is meant to depict, Scarlott says for her part, she will try to raise awareness of the statue and let groups like North Bronx Racial Justice decide if they want to take action on them.
“I imagine that conceivably drawing the city’s attention to this statue or getting indigenous people’s opinion on it is the first step,” she said. “That seems like a good first step for there to at least finally have something be done.”
CORRECTION: The group that would decide whether it will take up a cause against the statue of Henry Hudson is North Bronx Racial Justice. A story in the Aug. 31 edition named a different group.