Credit: Howard Schnapp

A historical debate over racism and oppression was renewed Friday on the campus of Hofstra University as dozens of students held dueling protests over whether to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder and the nation’s third president.

Supporters and opponents of removing the statue held a students-only, closed-door protest inside the university’s student center.

More than 50 statue opponents later took their demonstration outside where they wore plastic handcuffs, carried signs reading “Dissent is Patriotic” and chanted “This is what democracy looks like.”

The “Jefferson Has Gotta Go!” protest, which called for removal of the statue from the front of the student center, was led by Ja’Loni Owens, a Hofstra junior. She contends that a statue of Jefferson, who owned hundreds of slaves, should not proudly be displayed for all students to see.

“This is someone who literally bought and sold us,” said Owens, who is black. “It’s disappointing. Students have been fighting to have this statue removed for 13 years.”

The statue, donated to Hofstra in 1999 by David S. Mack, a Kings Point real estate developer, has been the subject of protests dating back to 2004. Messages left for Mack this week were not returned.

The debate was reignited this week when Owens posted a petition on Change.org — which has more 900 signatures as of Friday evening — urging the university to remove the statue.

A counterpetition, calling for the statue to remain in place, has nearly 1,150 signatures, although statue opponents contend many were from people living out of state who saw the story broadcast on national media, including Fox News.

Statue supporters say that despite owning hundreds of black slaves, Jefferson was an early abolitionist who worked to end the practice of slavery.

“The statue is a conversation starter,” said Richard Caldwell, a Hofstra freshman. “It’s important to talk about different views.”

Hofstra announced Thursday night that the dueling protests, originally scheduled to be held in front of the statue, would be moved inside the student center and closed to the press.

“The organizers want to ensure that this event stays true to their original intent to stage a safe, orderly and peaceful demonstration,” the university said in a statement.

Protest attendees agreed that the statue opponents greatly outnumbered those who wanted to keep the monument on campus during the indoor demonstration.

Statue opponents contend the debate was civil, with both sides having an equal opportunity to explain their point of view.

“Thomas Jefferson has no place on Hofstra’s campus,” said Emily Kilheeney, a senior. “This statue belongs in a museum.”

But Conor Dawson, a Hofstra freshman, said he and other statue supporters were shouted down and cursed at when they tried to explain their position. “Everyone should have a chance to be heard,” he said. “But we were getting booed and laughed at.”

After the nearly two-hour indoor protest, many statue opponents — including members of the Campus Feminist Collective, Collegiate Women of Color, Democrats of Hofstra University, the Pride Network of Hofstra University and the Hofstra NAACP chapter — held an animated demonstration for the gathered media.

They carried signs reading “white silence is violence,” “a slave cannot consent” and “stop rewriting history” while chanting “Say it once. Say it again. No excuse for racism.” Many wore Black Lives Matters T-shirts and one wrote the words “Abolish Whiteness” across his chest.

The outdoor demonstration lasted roughly 30 minutes.

The school said it will arrange a meeting the week of April 9 with university President Stuart Rabinowitz, other senior university leaders and student representatives to “discuss the diverse views on this subject.”

Latest videos