Albany native Philip Schuyler was a Revolutionary War general, a U.S. senator from New York – and a slave owner.
As America reckons with the issue of race, cities across the country are taking a closer look at statues and namesakes of those once considered heroes by many, but whose personal history of slave ownership, racism, officership in the Confederacy and similar transgressions overshadow their other contributions to society.
The mayor of Albany recently announced that the statue of Schuyler in front of City Hall will be taken down. A few days later, the Albany school district said it will remove his name from one of its elementary schools.
Jennifer Dorsey, Ph.D., professor of history and director of Siena’s McCormick Center for the Study of the American Revolution, was a panelist in a June 18 virtual town hall to discuss whether Schuyler’s statue and similar monuments should be kept up to educate the public about history, moved to museum – or removed completely. The event was hosted by the Saratoga County Historical Society.
“The job of history is not to hold historical actors up on a pedestal, but to find out as much truth as we can about the past. Sometimes the elements we uncover are in conflict,” Dorsey said. “Teachers, professors, museums are all here to help people explore the past and come to terms with it.”
Dorsey said several attendees were unhappy with the way Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced her decision – many felt the removal should have been put up for a public referendum.
“As an elected official and the executive of the City of Albany, it is within her purview to do this. But when the time comes to decide how that space will be repurposed, I hope the conversation will be inclusive of many voices. There should be a consensus about who should be represented.”
There are no easy answers about which statues to keep and which to remove, or how historical figures should be interpreted and judged. Which historical figures could take the place of those taken down? Dorsey said there is no shortage of New Yorkers who could be publicly honored – perhaps the revolutionary era Governor George Clinton, or the abolitionist Governor William Seward, or Shirley Chisholm, the first African American Congresswoman.
“All of these New York leaders were committed to extending the franchise and promoting democratic engagement. That is the type of historical figure that should be memorialized in the greenspace between Albany City Hall and the New York State Capitol.”
Dorsey said when she first moved to New York she was surprised at how little most residents knew about their state: that slavery had existed here since the 1600s; that it was one of the last of the northern states to abolish slavery; that Schuyler, “one of the last patroons,” was fundamentally anti-democratic and that his massive landholdings made his family one of the richest in the new nation.
Dorsey noted an irony: that at time when the country is contemplating its difficult history, museums, libraries and historic sites have had to shut their doors due to the pandemic. She recently reviewed emergency funding applications for the National Endowment for the Humanities to allow these places to reopen and continue to educate the public. The NEH just announced more than $40 million in CARES Act grants. Locally, Historic Cherry Hill in Albany received $30,000 for a study of the African American experience.