The DeWitt Park monument that memorializes the “first white settlers” in Ithaca is officially coming down after the City Administration Committee voted unanimously to remove it on Sept. 23.
The monument, which has recently been repeatedly vandalized by unknown persons, reads: “First white settlers in Ithaca were revolutionary soldiers Jonathan Woodworth and Robert McDowell in 1788. Cabin sites near this marker erected in 1933 by Cayuga chapter of D.A.R. [Daughters of the American Revolution] and State of New York.”
According to local historian, Carol Kammen, not only is this monument inaccurate in its depiction of Woodworth and McDowell as the very first white settlers, it ignores the history of Native American ties to the land prior to their ejection as well as the large community of Black and brown people who have contributed to and currently reside in the Ithaca community.
Mayor Svante Myrick sent a letter to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Committee on Sept.1 calling for the removal of the monument after his office received complaints detailing the exclusionary message it sends to people of color in the Ithaca community.
Though the vote passed, it wasn’t without discussion.
“I support this resolution [but] I have a problem with several of the [sections],” committee member George McGonigal said, adding that he doesn’t think the meaning of the monument was accurately portrayed.
“Aside from the unfortunate use of the word white, and the claim that it marks the area where the first cabins were built, which is probably not true, this marker simply states where two cabins were built by early settlers. If the marker said ‘This marks the spot where two Revolutionary War veterans built their cabins,’ I don’t think we’d have a problem with it.
He also objected to the section in the proposal that stated “the D.A.R. focus on white Americans and the promotion of an intentionally limited American history,” after receiving an email from an Ithaca resident that said the original markers included sites of Native American villages.
He went on to call several other sections “problematic,” including one that states “…the marker has become a local symbol of exclusion, oppression and injustice.”
Alternatively Graham Kerslick stated that he fully supported the resolution of the monument’s removal.
“In the current climate, I think this is a very good step we can take,” he said. “There is an intent to put something in its place and I saw in a letter of recommendations from Historic Ithaca that we reach out to other communities to replace this with something that does recognize the more inclusive of the development of this area.”
Ultimately, Chair of the Committee Deb Mohlenhoff said that McGonigal’s concerns with the wording were unclear and not brought to the floor procedurally. McGonigal will have until Sept. 30 to provide his list of suggested edits, which will be presented along with the original wording to the Common Council.
As for the statue itself, Benjamin Sandberg from the History Center in Tompkins County said the organization would have a legal responsibility to care for and preserve the monument. It would be part of their rotating exhibits, and the community would be able to access it through the Center’s archives when it wasn't on display.
The next City Administration Committee meeting is October 28 at 6 p.m. and the next Common Council meeting is October 7 at 6 p.m. A link to their YouTube Channel where their meetings are live-streamed can be found on their website, cityofithaca.org.