My “thing with the statue” all started a few years back. Actually, it started hundreds of years ago with human trafficking, genocide, and the systematic grand-scale enslavement of human beings that made the prosperity of early America possible. But for the purposes of this story, it began around 2009. I was walking into Prospect Park, at the 9th Street entrance, when I noticed that the monument to the Marquis de Lafayette had, as part of its backdrop relief, an African-American-looking groomsman standing next to a horse. I thought to myself, I wonder who he was?
I went home and Googled the statue to see what the internet had to say about this mysterious black man, and I found that the New York City Parks Department website did not mention the presence of a second human being in the monument at all. Instead, it read:
“The work, set in a picturesque pink granite steele designed by architect Henry Bacon, features a heroic-sized Lafayette standing next to his horse.”
Lafayette and his horse. His horse. Nary a mention of the grown man standing there, blanket over his shoulder and a look on his face like he’d rather be someplace else. I was perplexed, and then angry, and then curious. I went to the library.
The statue, by Daniel Chester French, had been commissioned when a Frenchman turned Brooklynite named Henry Harteau died and left the city $35,000 to cast a monument to his celebrated countryman. (Lafayette and Harteau are identified on the statue’s base, and it was dedicated in 1917.) He asked that the statue be based on a painting called Lafayette at Yorktown by Jean-Baptiste Le Paon. The painting was actually of two men named Lafayette; one was the familiar marquis, and the other was named James Armistead Lafayette. The marquis was white and James was black. Still, I wondered: Were they brothers? Why did they share a last name?
It turns out that James Armistead was an enslaved man from Virginia who enlisted to fight against the British and ended up working as a double agent. The information he acquired helped to win the battle of Yorktown; hence, the heroic painting. He served under Lafayette, and the two men became such close friends that the marquis successfully petitioned to have James made a free man, after James’s own request for manumission was denied. (Apparently, they were only freeing “slave-soldiers” who fought in the war; being a “slave-spy” didn’t qualify.) James Armistead then took the name of his friend out of affection and gratitude. He lived a long life and become a farmer and a family man.
About once every 18 months, I would remember the erasure of James Armistead Lafayette, Revolutionary War hero and former slave, from his own monument, and I’d send some tweets out into the void. Nothing ever came of them — until earlier this month, when I added the #BlackHistoryMonth tag to my complaint, and NYC Parks spotted it. “We hear you. We completely agree that this sign needs to be rewritten,” @NYCParks tweeted back. “We’re going to do some research this week to give James Armistead Lafayette his due, and correct other smaller errors. Thanks for sharing this with us. We’re sorry it took this long to fix.”
I called up the Parks Department to find out when we could expect to see this change, and spoke with the director of art and antiquities, Jonathan Kuhn. He assured me that the unfortunate web description was “just an omission” and was “not an intentional oversight.”
“It is, however, a very important detail,” he said. “We’ll be updating that information to improve the content and tell the full story.” Kuhn said his department would need to look into verifying the monument’s backstory and its link to Lafayette at Yorktown by seeing more primary documents, but that they would “amend the content to fully describe James Armistead Lafayette.”
Black History Month ends today. So far, James and I are still waiting.