Shortly after Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan ordered the removal of the Major Gen. Philip Schuyler statue in front of City Hall, I walked downtown with my son to take a look at it.
I don’t know what I expected to see — history buffs gathering to pay tribute to a notable Revolutionary War leader? protesters marching on City Hall to oppose Sheehan’s order? — but it was a quiet, albeit striking, scene.
There stood Schuyler, the largest owner of enslaved people in Albany in the late 1700s, in front of a large Black Lives Matter banner. The juxtaposition of statue and sign seemed to capture one of the great contradictions of American history: that men who fought for independence saw nothing wrong with treating black people as property.
Schuyler isn’t in the same category as Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate States Army, or Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who also served as first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He didn’t betray his country for a worthless cause, or join a terrorist organization with a mission of keeping black people from achieving true equality.
Like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, Schuyler is someone we honor for his achievements and despite his sins.
That doesn’t mean his statue should remain in its lofty perch in front of City Hall.
I’m persuaded, in part, by the many people who believe that Schuyler should go — people like Mary Liz Stewart, who co-founded the Underground History Project of the Capital Region with her husband, Paul.
As Stewart told The Daily Gazette’s Bill Buell, “Schuyler is not a Jefferson Davis, nor is he of the planter class that inhabited the Confederate states. However, he was a man committed to dehumanizing those who he, or his representatives, perceived to be purchasable as property. He bought into a system that was built on racism.”
Re-evaluating how and why we honor people is healthy, and I’m comfortable with the notion that, in the year 2020, owning slaves might disqualify someone from a spot of honor in front of City Hall.
It’s worth noting that nobody is arguing that the Schuyler statue should be destroyed.
Sheehan herself has said that the plan is to find another home for the statue, most likely in a museum, where it can be displayed “with the appropriate historical context.”
I know I’d like to see the statue moved to a place where the general’s life can be discussed and interpreted in all its complexity.
Some have argued that moving the statue is akin to erasing history, but that seems a little unfair, given the mayor’s stated commitment to keeping the statue in Albany. People who want to see the statue will still be able to — they’ll just have to go someplace else.
The statue’s removal has opened up a larger discussion of what to put in its place, but I’d like to lend my support to Times Union columnist Chris Churchill’s call for turning the circular intersection where Schuyler now sits into a car-free plaza.
This intersection is dangerous — circular, confusing and difficult to navigate on foot. Those seeking a good look at the statue have to contend with a steady flow coming from different directions. Turning it into a plaza would create a friendly, accessible place where people could stroll, sit and enjoy downtown.
I’ll admit that I’ve enjoyed watching monuments to Confederate leaders and klansmen come down, and I wouldn’t mind seeing most of them dumped into the sea.
I feel differently about Philip Schuyler.
He deserves to be remembered.
But that doesn’t mean the way we remember him shouldn’t change.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.