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Dispute over Thomas Jefferson statue at Hofstra University

A statue of Thomas Jefferson at Hofstra University.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson at Hofstra University. Credit: Barry Sloan

Hofstra University students are squaring off over whether a statue of Thomas Jefferson — a slaveholder — should be removed from the Hempstead campus.

Student organizers calling for the removal have launched an online petition demanding Hofstra move the figure from the front of the student center. The petition, organized by Ja’Loni Owens, a university junior, was posted on about one week ago and 704 people had signed in support as of Wednesday evening.

Owens said students going to class or lunch should not be forced to pass a statue of a man who owned hundreds of slaves.

“We cannot suppress our history to sell this narrative,” Owens said. “This statue should not be displayed in a proud manner.”

Owens will lead a “Jefferson Has Gotta Go!” protest at the statue on Friday at noon. The protest is co-sponsored by several Hofstra groups including Campus Feminist Collective, Collegiate Women of Color, Democrats of Hofstra University and the Hofstra NAACP chapter.

A counter-petition calling for the statute to stay says while Jefferson might have been flawed, he helped establish American independence and his statue is “a conversation starter.” That petition was created Tuesday and had 418 signatures by 3 p.m. Wednesday. A counterprotest is planned for Friday.

Conor Dawson, a Hofstra freshman, said Jefferson, despite owning hundreds of African-American slaves, was an early abolitionist who worked to end the practice of slavery.

“He was a historical figure and one of the Founding Fathers,” Dawson said. “They are not talking about all of the other things Jefferson did.”

In 1998, DNA evidence indicated Jefferson fathered several children with Sally Hemmings, a slave he owned.

Hofstra released a statement Wednesday: “The right to peaceful protest and assembly is at the core of our democracy. Hofstra supports our students’ right to engage in peaceful demonstrations about issues that matter to them. We look forward to continuing a civil exchange of ideas and perspectives on the subject.”

The statue, donated to Hofstra in 1999 by David S. Mack, a Kings Point real estate developer, has been the subject of protests in the past. In 2004, students demonstrated and demanded its removal, according to The Hofstra Chronicle, the student newspaper.

Wednesday, students were divided about the statue.

Tess Griffin, a senior, said the statue was a “spit in the face of all the black students on campus.” But Christian-Ray Conrad, a freshman, said the good in Jefferson’s life “far outweighed the bad.”

Peter Onuf — an author who has written extensively about the third U.S. president, who also was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence — said he is “deeply conflicted” about Jefferson’s legacy, but he argued it’s dangerous to try an erase a nation’s past by “burying our head in the sand.”

Onuf, the distinguished scholar in residence at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, added: “If we forget Jefferson, we forget ourselves.”

With William Murphy

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