You’ve got hate mail: Cemetery honcho bombarded with letters blasting his request for gyno’s statue

Controversy dies here: City’s statue of polarizing doctor will move to private Green-Wood Cemetery
Associated Press / Bebeto Matthews

This statue’s controversy is far from dead.

Dozens of irate locals fired off letters to the head honcho of Brooklyn’s biggest necropolis after this newspaper reported he wanted the graveyard to be the final resting place for a polarizing effigy of a gynecologist who experimented on black slaves.

“Why would you want to display a monument of torture and racism in our neighborhood?” Park Sloper Joanna Arnow asked Green-Wood Cemetery’s Richard Moylan via e-mail. “Are you a proponent of racism? Or torture? Or you just really like forced medical experiments? I’m so confused.”

Residents’ grass-roots protest began following the news that Moylan asked the city to move the likeness of J. Marion Sims to the idyllic burial ground after Hizzoner’s commission on statues recommended banishing it from its home in Manhattan’s Central Park, according to a letter writer.

“A couple of folks who live in South Slope came across [the Brooklyn Paper] article … and got really upset that the solution was to remove the racist statue from one location to another,” said Kate Axelrod, who lives in Park Slope.

But what started as a small group of apoplectic penmen and women quickly ballooned into a full-fledged campaign after the original protestors spread the word to friends and associates, many of whom wrote copycat missives blasting Moylan for glorifying the 19th-century gyno.

“As black women have been saying for years: Sims tortured black women when he performed medical experiments on them without anesthesia or consent,” wrote Michael Madormo. “Why would we celebrate this person?”

The privately owned cemetery’s chief responded to the flood of criticism with his own letter that described Green-Wood’s more than 570,000 eternal residents — Sims included — as a hodgepodge of saints, sinners, and everything in between, and stated his belief in preserving both art and history.

“Green-Wood is truly a microcosm of our nation’s history — the good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly,” he wrote. “The responsibility to preserve this history, and not to whitewash it, is something we take very seriously.”

Moylan’s letter went on to explain his plans for the statue, which, along with a new informational display describing the doctor’s legacy, he hopes to use as a tool to educate visitors about Sims and the role he forced black women to play in his sordid medical career.

“Placing the sculpture at the gravesite is not meant to glorify him,” his letter read. “Rather, it is a visual focal point that will bring attention to a factual display that Green-Wood will build.”

The response succeeded in mollifying some protesters, who were relieved to learn that information would accompany the monument.

“I personally appreciated the plan to put it in context,” said Sunset Parker Molly McIntyre. “I would just be curious to know more about exactly what that looks like.”

But others argued that no amount of background detail would justify the controversial likeness’s placement on the hallowed ground.

“Statues serve as markers of honor and remembrance; this one honors Sims, no matter how many plaques you place around it,” Prospect Heights resident Tom Weinreich said in his letter opposing the monument’s move.

And Axelrod doesn’t endorse the outright destruction of the statue, but said it should not be accessible to the public in any way, vowing to increase the pressure on Moylan unless the cemetery changes its tune.

“I don’t want to see it publicly displayed anywhere,” she said. “I don’t want this man to be honored in any way.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.