BISMARCK — The group behind the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in western North Dakota says it will move forward with the project and aim to reflect the namesake's complex legacy after New York City announced a controversial statue of Roosevelt will come down.
The American Museum of Natural History asked New York City on Sunday, June 21, to remove the statue from its front steps following years of protests by activists who say it exemplifies white supremacist imagery, according to The New York Times. The statue features Roosevelt mounted on a horse, high above a Native American man and an African man who walk next to him.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday he supports the removal of the "problematic" statue, which has stood facing Central Park since 1940. President Donald Trump said in a tweet the statue should not be removed.
The museum, de Blasio and some of Roosevelt's descendants, including great-grandson Theodore Roosevelt IV, have promoted the idea that the statue does not reflect the legacy left by the 26th president.
That position is shared by Ed O'Keefe, the CEO of the foundation working to build a library near Medora to "showcase (Roosevelt's) reverence for America’s natural resources and tell the story of his extraordinary contributions to this nation."
As a young man, Roosevelt spent parts of three years hunting and ranching in the North Dakota Badlands before his career in national politics took off.
Clay Jenkinson, a historian and scholar with Dickinson State University's Theodore Roosevelt Center, said the statue doesn't represent Roosevelt's entire legacy, but it does reflect Roosevelt's now-unpalatable view that Anglo-Saxon people stood at the pinnacle of humankind and were meant bring civilization to more primitive races.
Jenkinson said he subscribes to the "whole man theory," which means recounting Roosevelt's story must include details of both his incredible achievements as a politician and leading conservationist and his overtly racist views and ideological contradictions.
O'Keefe said the library and museum exhibits will offer a "modern look" at Roosevelt that examines "the past with academic rigor, while honoring the incredible life, legacy and enduring relevance of (Roosevelt)." O'Keefe noted that the library foundation is developing a council of historians, scholars and experts to help tell all parts of Roosevelt's story.
The CEO declined to answer further questions Monday, but he previously told Forum News Service that library exhibits will aim to tell the story of Roosevelt as a complex figure who spearheaded so much progress for his country and also wrote extensively of his racist and sexist views.
Jenkinson, who was once associated with the library project but is no longer, said he believes the group will do a good job in painting a full picture of Roosevelt. He noted that deifying the man would be "intellectually dishonest" and unconvincing to the public, which he said is "impatient with mythology."
"(Roosevelt) gains in humanity and credibility and relevance if you look at him as a complex person rather than some kind of superhero," Jenkinson said. However, he added, Roosevelt "deserves better than to be lumped in as an unenlightened, racist pig."
Of the statue in New York, Jenkinson said it probably should be moved inside the museum, but in general, he said he would prefer to see "counter-statues" or interpretive panels that offer modern context.
Roosevelt's imperfection makes for a great museum, said Iowa State University history professor Stacy Cordery in a previous interview with Forum News Service. A museum can convey what racism, sexism and bigotry meant during Roosevelt's era and put it into context.
"The simple fact that it's a museum and not a book or something more permanent that you can't change means that both the good and the bad of Roosevelt will get shown," Cordery said. "He's such a suitable character for a museum because we can keep telling the story as we understand it and re-envision it."
Last year, state lawmakers approved a $50 million endowment for the project if the library foundation can raise $100 million in private donations.