Long before neo-Nazis and white supremacists converged on Charlottesville, Va., to demand that a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee not be removed, Queens had its own struggle with a controversial monument.
Commissioned by Mayor George McClellan Jr. in 1909, “Triumph of Civic Virtue” depicts Hercules standing on top of two women who represent “Corruption” and “Vice.” The 17-foot-high sculpture arrived at City Hall in 1922 and remained there until Mayor Robert Wagner, who was not a big fan, moved it to the grounds outside the new Queens Borough Hall in 1941.
In Queens, with a history of successive female borough presidents and the first woman to run as vice president of a major political party, the large Beaux Arts work was not considered a triumph or civic virtue in most quarters.
In November 2012, the city Public Design Commission authorized the relocation of the divisive statue, which was quietly loaded onto a truck and sent to the private Greenwood-Cemetery in Brooklyn.
This week Borough President Melinda Katz — the third woman in a row to hold the post — unveiled the newly restored “Women’s Plaza in Queens,” where the sculpture by Frederick MacMonnies had stood.
Former Borough President Claire Shulman, who had fought for the removal of the piece when in office, had contended “a municipal building is not an appropriate place for a statue that portrays women as evil and treacherous.”
But the misogynistic statue did not go quietly into the night. Although many Queens residents found the sculpture offensive, some were opposed to exiling the piece, which needed $2 million in repairs.
One Kew Gardens resident even appealed to Queens native Donald Trump to help restore the monument. His response is not known.
Elected officials quarreled over where the statue should go, who should pay for the restoration and whether public property should be given to a private venue.
In the end, “Civic Virtue” was repaired in keeping with former Borough President Helen Marshall’s wishes. When she succeeded Marshall, Katz backed her plan to restore the base of the statue and dedicate the surrounding plaza to the women of Queens — a fitting tribute for the space once occupied by a sexist monument.
Queens managed to resolve a politically sensitive issue without triggering public protests or hateful rhetoric. Trump should considering bringing more women into his administration to defuse the testosterone-driven debate over race in this country. Our female leaders stepped up to correct a historical injustice and got it done.