Walt Whitman Statue to Be Relocated on College Campus, Citing Controversial Racist Past

A statue of the famous 19th-century poet Walt Whitman is set to be removed from the center of the Rutgers University-Camden campus in New Jersey after petitions from activists and a recommendation from a committee of scholars was recently approved.

The Whitman statue, located in Camden's Campus Center courtyard, will be moved to another campus site, according to the school's vice-chancellor for public affairs and chief of staff, Mike Sepanic. The statue pays homage to the author who lived in Camden upon his death in 1892 at age 72.

Sepanic told Newsweek that members of the Rutgers University–Camden community asked the university in spring 2020 to re-evaluate, through contemporary and social-justice lenses, the statues, monuments and other forms of public art on our campus.

 American poet, essayist Walt Whitman
Rutgers-Camden is moving a prominent sculpture of Walt Whitman to a quieter part of campus after activists petitioned for its removal. Seen here is a different sculpture of Whitman. Getty Images

"A committee of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members, including a number of historians and artists, examined this broad topic during the past year," said Sepanic. "Their recommendations include the relocation of a statue of Walt Whitman from in front of our Campus Center to another site on campus—in a garden space near a century-old tree—where the statue can be displayed with accompanying contextual information within the coming months."

Last year, a petition on change.org entitled "Remove Racist Walt Whitman from Rutgers-Camden Campus" started circulating.

The appeal argues the statue "glorifies a man who we should not hold such a place of honor on our campus. Our school encourages inclusion, diversity, and equity while Whitman stood for none of those things. He instead stood for white supremacy and racism against Black and Indigenous Americans."

Now they're trying to remove a Walt Whitman statue. pic.twitter.com/265gVK2EW5

— Mark Hemingway (@Heminator) July 7, 2020

It went on to quote what the activists called one of Whitman's "white supremacist beliefs": "The n*****, like the I****, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable—always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out."

As of Monday, the petition had 3,853 signatures of its 5,000 goal. Protests also centered on the school landmark.

Whitman is considered one of America's most famous and influential poets known for his seminal "Leaves of Grass," "Song of Myself" and "O Captain! My Captain!" The author and essayist was considered a humanist; he incorporated both views of transcendentalism and realism in his works and was often called the father of free verse. In general, his poetry praised the American experiment.

In an email to both students and university employees, interim Chancellor Margaret Marsh said the school plans to establish a day to honor and examine the history of Rutgers-Camden and racial justice, diversity, equity and inclusion narratives.