The Racist Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt

The American Museum of Natural History announced the removal of its Theodore Roosevelt Equestrian Statue, kicking up the long celebrated father of American Conservationism's history of white supremacy and colonialism.

After years of protesters calling for the removal of racist monuments around the world, the current Black Lives Matter uprising has finally brought these demands to fruition. Along with the toppling of statues celebrating known white supremacists and slave-owners like Edward Colston and Robert E. Lee, even figures with less blatant legacies of racism are having a moment of reckoning.

On Sunday, the American Museum of Natural History announced it would be removing its statue of former president and pioneering conservationist Theodore Roosevelt. Flanked by a Black and a Native American man on either side of a triumphant, horse-mounted Roosevelt, the Equestrian Statue has long been critiqued for its hierarchical and implicitly white supremacist composition.

Theodore Roosevelt IV, museum trustee and great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, said in a statement, “The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice. The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the Statue and move forward.”

According to recent scholarship however, the Equestrian Statue may all too well reflect the former president's opinions on race. Belying Roosevelt's purported progressivism was a staunch nationalism—a standing that would inevitably reveal overtly bigoted overtones later in life. Before society "moves forward," it's worth taking this opportunity to confront American conservationism's problematic history. 

A 2017 New York Times article details how Roosevelt scorned what he called "hyphenated Americans" (ie: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc). In a 1905 address to Congress, he stated: “It will be a great deal better to have fewer immigrants, but all of the right kind, than a great number of immigrants, many of whom are necessarily of the wrong kind.” 

His 1904 campaign, meanwhile, was one of the first presidential administrations openly opposed to civil rights and suffrage for Blacks. Roosevelt would go on to propose subsidies for white Americans so that they could have more children and endorsed eugenics via sterilizing the poor and mentally handicapped. 

Roosevelt has also been critiqued for being an aggressive imperialist who believed that the U.S. expansion into the Caribbean and the Pacific was necessary in order the civilize what he deemed "backwards" nations. 

Though Roosevelt's Equestrian Statue will soon be gone, the American Museum of Natural History has found a new, ostensibly more appropriate honorarium—their renowned Hall of Biodiversity will now be named after him. 

Read more on The New York Times.