CAMDEN, NJ — The same week a petitioner is asking Rutgers-Camden to remove the Walt Whitman statue from the campus, another is calling for the university to reconsider covering a mosaic that has drawn ire from some in the community.
The "racist statue” of the poet and essayist should not continue to stand before the university’s student center, petitioners said.
Born in West Hills, New York, Whitman spent his final days in the city of Camden — where his house still stands on the 300 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“Rutgers-Camden has been making efforts recently to remove symbols around our campus which continue to perpetuate a racist past,” wrote D’Erica Boskie, who began the petition. “I believe that the statue of Walt Whitman glorifies a man who we should not hold such a place of honor on our campus.”
Boskie, who was not immediately available for comment, goes on to state that students of color “would feel more comfortable” with the statue’s removal. The petition has garnered over 200 signatures as of Wednesday.
“We cannot erase history, but we can learn from it. Rutgers University–Camden is preparing an inclusive process for confronting and acknowledging our history, and then planning for our future,” Mike Sepanic, a spokesman for the university told TAPinto Camden in response to the petition. “These are difficult conversations, and we’re not going to shy away from them.”
Phoebe Haddon will step down from the role of chancellor in a week, making way for Margaret Marsh on an interim basis.
“Incoming Chancellor Margaret Marsh will announce plans to advance these important dialogues about our campus and our community within the next few weeks,” Sepanic continued.
While a decision over the Whitman statue has not been announced, the university has partially obscured a mosaic frieze on school grounds.
Located at Johnson Park’s former Cooper Branch Library, school officials said the frieze did not represent diverse values. Among other depictions, the mosaic — which was designed by D'Ascenzo Studios of Philadelphia in 1916- shows Christopher Columbus and indigenous people appearing to bow.
That he would delve into a university decision is not common for Graham Alexander, president of Victor Talking Machine Company, he says.
“I don’t normally speak on such matters, but felt like I had to in this case” Alexander said over the phone. “The mosaic seems to be continuously slanted with almost no actual art education behind it. It just seems the administrators of the school have determined the meaning, and they’ve determined that meaning incorrectly.”
In an essay, Alexander argues that the mosaic, entitled “America Receiving The Gifts of the Nations,” features over 30 nationalities and works to be inclusive of an array of races. He goes on to admit that said 1916 standards for inclusivity have evolved and yet, residents are savvy enough to contextualize the piece appropriately.
“This isn’t a gaudy painting of Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia...it literally intends to be inclusive, goes out of its way to not be divisive, and the conclusion that Rutgers has come to is wrong.”
Shawn Burke, a Camden resident, said that based on Alexander's points he created a petition asking “to save the historic frieze.”
So far, 38 people have signed in support.
“In the midst of what’s going on, locally and nationally, there are people doing and saying misguided things, such as toppling statues and destroying property that is assumed to [be] tied to something negative,” remarked Burke, who says he has advocated for the rights of the LGBT community, at-risk youth, and other disenfranchised groups for over 20 years.