Ari Dubow / Sun City Editor

The First White Settler's monument might find itself moved from DeWitt park. The decision will be finalized on Oct. 7.

October 7, 2020

Ithaca Common Council to Decide Final Fate of ‘First White Settlers’ Monument

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In the last step to remove a controversial DeWitt Park monument commemorating white settlers from city property, the Common Council will vote Oct. 7 to finalize the decision to move it to the Tompkins County History Center Museum. The City Administration Committee previously voted to remove the plaque in September.

In recent years, Ithaca residents have criticized the appropriateness of the plaque, which honors white settlers and makes no mention of Cayuga Nation, the people who pre-existed white settlement. The monument was installed in DeWitt Park in 1933 by the Daughters of the Revolution.

Controversy over the plaque was given new energy in 2017 when Tompkins County Historian and retired Cornell lecturer Carol Kammen wrote an essay for the Ithaca Journal explaining the racist history and implications of the nearly century-old monument.

During recent months of protests against racial injustice in Ithaca and across the country, many residents sent emails and letters of complaint about the plaque to Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, according to the Ithaca Voice. Ithacans have also vandalized the monument with red paint several times in recent months.

In response to public outcry, Myrick penned a letter requesting a certificate of appropriateness — a required entitlement that allows for the alteration of a designated structure or object.

The monument “sends the intentional message that this land belongs to white people,” Myrick wrote. “Its purpose is to exclude the indigenous people who were the stewards of this land, and Black people and people of color who have long been members of this community.”

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The certificate was approved by the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission, allowing the city to move forward with removing the plaque.

Common Council members shared the public’s concerns about the plaque and moved along with the mayor to remove it. Alderperson George McGonigal (D-1st Ward) mentioned how constant vandalism due to the monument’s controversy led to its removal.

“It has been vandalized on a regular basis for some time,” McGonigal said. “Those two settlers were certainly among the first settlers, but weren’t necessarily the first [people here].”

McGonigal added that Ithacans disapproved of the monument’s “white settlers” instead of settlers or pioneers more generally.

As of now, the Ithaca community has not questioned other city monuments on the grounds of race. Alderperson McGonigal thought the removal of the monument wouldn’t cause residents to question other monuments in the city, but still expressed concerns about the possibility.

“I don’t think it will,” McGonigal said. “There’s a marker on Seneca Street about settlers, it’s a lot less prominent and does not have the word white in it, I’m hoping it won’t be challenged.”

The summer’s rise in disapproval of the DeWitt Park monument comes at a time when the country is shrouded in conversations about memorializing parts of the nation’s past. In the past  five years, over 100 confederate monuments across the country have been removed.

Because of the intensity of the national issue, Alderperson Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward) thought the removal of the monument could put the fate of Tompkins County’s other monuments in doubt.

“It’s always possible,” he said. “We’re at a time when people are reviewing statues and monuments all across the country.”