NEW YORK - When Sharon Thompson was a girl, she used to get a bad feeling when she walked by an imposing statue of a man on the edge of Central Park near East Harlem.
On Thursday, Thompson learned the story behind the statue when a local news station produced a piece on it. The bronze sculpture commemorates James Marion Sims, a slavery-era physician born in South Carolina who practiced in New York.
The once celebrated but also reviled gynecologist made inroads in the medical field and once headed the American Medical Association, but he also experimented on enslaved black women without anesthesia and without their consent. Sims also owned slaves.
Now, Thompson is part of a growing chorus of people calling for the removal of Sims’ statue.
For many, the case brings back echoes of the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cancer cells were used without consent by researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital for medical research, or the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in which treatment was withheld from African-American men in Alabama so that researchers could study the disease's progression.
The growing Sims protests are drawing strength from the movement across the country to take down statues commemorating figures from the Confederacy.
“I think it needs to come down,” Thompson said of the Sims statue as she walked by with her mother, Louise Thompson, who still lives in the neighborhood.
“I was telling my mother I used to get the creeps when I walked by this statue,” said Sharon Thompson, who now lives in Brooklyn.
Thompson is not alone.
For years, New Yorkers have protested the existence of the statue commemorating Sims, who died in 1883, and have called for its removal. Sims is credited with advances in the surgical repair of fistulas or tears that can occur in women who have had pelvic surgery or complications from childbirth.
But he made those advances, in part, by operating on three enslaved women. The protests to remove the statue have reached a crescendo in recent days, with African-American women protesters showing up in hospital gowns stained with fake blood.
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is responsible for the statue. The agency is headed by Commissioner Mitchell Silver, who is African-American. The Parks Department press office passed a request for comment on the Sims statue over to City Hall.
Ben Sarle, a deputy press secretary to Mayor Bill de Blasio, told USA TODAY in an e-mail Monday night that the city is putting together a panel of relevant experts and community leaders to explore the issue.
“They will design the criteria and offer recommendations on specific items,” Sarle said. “It’s the beginning framework of what will ideally be a long-term approach to the evaluation of public structures and controversial pieces of public art.”
Of the statue, Sarle added, “It is obviously one of the statues that will get very immediate attention because there’s been tremendous concern raised about it.”
The Parks Department website acknowledges the controversy over Sims.
“Sims has been the subject of much discussion, with some condemning the physician for his medical practices, and with others defending his record within the context of his time,” the website reads.
Those calling for the statue’s removal are New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has been protesting the statue since 2011, Planned Parenthood and New York City community organizations. A petition created on the Change.org website calling for the statue’s removal
“El Barrio residents have waited long enough for the city to act,” Mark-Viverito said of the East Harlem neighborhood near the statue. “At a time when Neo Nazis, white nationalists and hateful right-wing extremists run rampant throughout the country with impunity, we must send a definitive message that the despicable acts of J. Marion Sims are repugnant and reprehensible.”
She added, “Mayor de Blasio and the Parks Department must remove this repugnant statue from our neighborhood once and for all.”
The call of the City Council speaker is similar to what officials across the country have been saying about the removal of statues that commemorate figures who abused or mistreated people based on race.
“These monuments masquerading as art are really relics promoting white supremacy,” Kevin Kamenetz, Baltimore County, Md., executive and president of the Maryland Association of Counties, told USA TODAY. “Two years ago, I made the decision to rename Robert E. Lee Park to Lake Roland, ending an effort to memorialize a secessionist leader who fought to maintain slavery, but had no direct ties to Baltimore County.”
He added, “Our public spaces should not glorify historical policies of hatred and racism.”
A petition on the Change.org website calling for the statue’s removal generated more than 500 signatures as of Monday night.
“It is disturbing that we continue to honor Sims by keeping a statue of him in the shadow of the New York Academy of Medicine,” the petition said of the medical institution with no connection to Sims that sits across Fifth Avenue from the sculpture. “The savagery of his practices require that the statue be taken down.”
Like Thompson, many in the area agree the statue needs to go.
First-year medical student Eva Delappe said part of her orientation at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai was an introduction to the statue and all parts of Sims’ history.
“I think it should be removed,” said Delappe, 27, a native of Reno. “I think it’s horrendous that it’s still here.”
But neighborhood resident Mary Turner said people should be mindful that Sims may have been working within the parameters of the times to help save others. She also suggested that remembering painful parts of history can be educational.
“It’s still part of what happened,” said Turner, 73. “Maybe it’s better to be reminded of what happened than to bury it.”