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Racism or legacy? The debate over two Long Island statues

A statue of Robert Moses, who shaped New

A statue of Robert Moses, who shaped New York's highways, bridges and parks, stands in the Village of Babylon on Thursday. Credit: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

Protesters are scheduled to march in Babylon Village for removal of a statue of master planner Robert Moses that they called, in an event flyer, a monument to Long Island’s “history of segregation, racism, and racial violence.”

Meanwhile, activists are calling for removal of the Shirley statue of William Floyd, a Declaration of Independence signer who owned enslaved people; one petition asks for that statue to remain where it is and two more ask for Robert Moses State Park to be renamed, echoing two 2019 New York State Assembly bills. Those bills, sponsored by Manhattan Democrats, have failed to advance. 

The efforts come as a movement against police brutality and racial inequality brings renewed attention to the racial freight of America’s public imagery, including some Confederate monuments that have been vandalized or taken down in recent weeks. 

Defenders of the Long Island statues say that their subjects' legacies and the stories of the people who worked to erect them are complicated and worthy of being memorialized. Both men lived on Long Island, not far from where their statues now stand. Floyd's statue was placed at Montauk Highway and William Floyd Parkway in 2013, and Moses’ statue was erected near Babylon Village Hall in 2003. Both were placed with the help of civic groups, to considerable fanfare.

But for some Long Islanders who support removal, the very existence of these statues — massive and prominently placed on public land — feels like an insult. 

Shiyanna Wilson, 24, a phlebotomist from Shirley, feels it whenever she drives down the parkway: "The fact that a slave owner is idolized in this community" is repugnant, she said. “People were passed down to his family like they were heirlooms.”

Wilson said she spoke with Suffolk County Legis. Rudy Sunderman (R-Shirley) about removal and that he floated an idea for a meeting between community stakeholders but remained neutral about removal and has not scheduled the meeting. Leaving the statue up, she said, is “telling your community you’re OK with racism and belittling that community.” Sunderman did not respond to a request for comment.  

Wilson is not alone: an online petition with thousands of signatures calls for the statue to be removed, relocated, contextualized or covered.

In Babylon, petitions calling for removal of Moses’ statue and renaming of the state park suggest that his decisions about placement of roads, public buildings and other infrastructure displaced communities of color or blocked them from access to resources. 

One of the petitioners appears to also be an organizer of the Saturday march; contacted over Facebook, she declined to comment. 

Some of her claims and those of other activists draw on “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s canonical biography of Moses. Caro’s book does, in fact, say that Moses took steps to discourage black people from using certain Long Island parks. It also says he attempted to limit access to parks and beaches for the poor and lower-middle class by blocking mass transit and instructing an underling to build bridges across Long Island parkways too low for buses to pass.

But focusing narrowly on those actions — or the fact that Floyd owned people — risks caricaturing both men and ignoring the significance of their monuments as social artifacts, said Michele Bogart, an emeritus professor of art at Stony Brook University.

A monument that remains in place — even or especially if it memorializes a contentious figure — is a “potential site for dialogue, inquisitive research, for all sorts of things that have, in my view, constructive potential from a civic perspective,” Bogart said. A carefully worded plaque or a counter-monument can add valuable context, she said. 

The Moses statue has powerful advocates in David Bishop and Wayne Horsley, former Democratic Suffolk County legislators and Babylon Village residents who helped fund and place it. Bishop, who identifies as a political progressive, in contrast to some defenders of Confederate monuments, called Moses “a horrible, miserable person who did great things for all of us.”

Horsley argued that Moses’ work helped transform Long Island from a place that was largely the private property of a Gilded Age elite to one that was more accessible for a much wider swath of New Yorkers. 

For him, the statue commemorates not just a man but the work of about two dozen village residents who planned it and other monuments. At a time when “we’d lost A&P, Bohack, and a lot of the community to big box stores,” those pieces were sources of civic pride and economic development, drawing visitors and shoppers to Main Street businesses, he said. “We were a success — Babylon Village is a thriving community today.”

In Shirley, Beth Wahl, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and William Floyd Community Summit, a civic group that helped place the Floyd statue, said, “We’re proud of it being the first thing people see as they start driving into our community.” 

She sees no reason to move the statue or add explanatory text of the sort Bogart discussed. “In those days slavery was not wrong — it was the norm” for large property owners. 

Wahl said attention on the statue was diverting energy from “legitimate complaints and things that should be changed.” That work is important to her in part because she has two grandchildren who are black. “ I want a world where they can do anything they want without having to feel they’re second-class citizens,” she said.

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