By Visvajit Sriramrajan
A statue of Thomas Jefferson, which has stood in front of Hofstra University’s David S. Mack Student Center for more than 20 years, has been relocated to Emily Lowe Hall, an academic building, amid renewed calls for its removal.
“Over the past few years, the placement of the Jefferson statue, and the history it represents, has been a reminder and consistent source of pain for many of our Black students and allies,” Hofstra University President Stuart Rabinowitz wrote in an email to the school community last month.
Rabinowitz’s comments, though, have been met with criticism from students and faculty, who said the statue has been problematic for Black students since its installment.
Amudalat Ajasa, president of the school’s Black Student Union, said, “While it’s important to acknowledge that he was a founding father, [the Hofstra administration] has to possess a double vision and see that he also ran one of the largest plantations out of Virginia while simultaneously condemning slavery.
“On top of that,” Ajasa said, “he engaged in a nonconsensual relationship with an underaged slave. How is that supposed to make Black students feel on campus? Like our grievances are heard and considered? Not at all.”
Jefferson enslaved more than 600 Black people throughout his lifetime, subjecting them to physical and verbal torture. DNA evidence also concluded in 1998 that the nation’s third president fathered children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved. She was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, according to Monticello.org.
“When I think about the Thomas Jefferson statue being relocated, it’s not that I’d rather it have stayed where it was,” Ja’Loni Owens, alumna and founder of the “Jefferson Has Gotta Go!” campaign, explained. “It’s that this moment requires so much more from institutions than I even knew to ask for when I was a student there. And that’s how organizers know that these gestures are performances, and pathetic ones at that.”
Owens started a petition to remove the Jefferson statue from campus two years ago, which reached thousands of students and raised awareness of the issue across the Hofstra community.
Rabinowitz, however, rejected the call for change, saying instead that the “founding fathers” had an “unprecedented vision of a free and equal world” and called Jefferson “a defender of freedom in helping to create a new nation.”
But in the wake of recent nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, university officials have changed their stance, instead moving the statue across campus.
It was donated to the university by real estate developer David S. Mack in 1999. Hofstra’s Student Center is named for Mack, who graduated from Hofstra with a business degree in 1967, and currently chairs the university’s Board of Trustees. Mack could not be reached for comment.
Members of the Hofstra community have said that relocation, rather than removal, is a temporary solution that does not address the deep-seated racism in American institutions.
Martine Hackett, an associate professor at the School of Health Professions and Human Services, who serves on the university’s recently reconvened Committee on Representation in Public Spaces, stressed that addressing the truth about Jefferson is a prerequisite to progressing toward a more just society.
“An appropriate historical and contemporary context for the actions that one of our ‘founding fathers’ engaged in public and private life needs to be communicated to students and the general public,” she said, “so they are able to make past injustices visible,” and “once we know we can do better, we can do better.”
Additionally, Ajasa said, as a majority white institution, the university should go out of its way to ensure Black students feel safe and included.
“I think Hofstra moving the statue instead of getting rid of it, like governors and mayors throughout America have been pressured to do, is pathetic and insulting,” she said. “We ask the administration to remove a symbol of Black oppression, and their response is to move it.”
The change comes as the Black Lives Matter movement has renewed calls for racial justice nationwide. “Over the last few weeks, whether you were in the streets or not, you’ve felt the difference in the air,” Owens said, “and it’s disappointing that what this moment has inspired is empty gestures from institutions that organizers have come right out and said are the problem.”
“What’s most insulting about performative activism is that they think there is still hope for Black people’s placation,” Owens said. “If I were a student at Hofstra right now, I would not accept what’s coming out of communications.”