An online petition is calling for the removal of the William Floyd statue at the southeast corner of William Floyd Parkway and Montauk Highway in Shirley, calling it “a constant reminder” of oppression to minorities in the area. Floyd, the only Long Island signer of the Declaration of Independence, was also a slave owner.

The petition, which is the brainchild of local protesters who marched and organized this past week following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, has garnered more than 850 signatures as of 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. It has also led to a fierce debate on social media on whether the removal is an appropriate measure, with nearly 1,000 comments to one post on a local Facebook group, both in favor and against. 

The petition, addressed to the Town of Brookhaven, reads: 

“William Floyd is a constant reminder to the oppression of the minorities in this community. The statue is a symbol of rebellion and subliminal RACISM. Although William Floyd was a New York senator and a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence, he is not a Hero. William Floyd was a proud slave owner! Floyd is a major contributor to the division amongst our community. The statue was placed to honor Floyd for building this community but institutional racism must be removed in order to achieve our ultimate goal of unity.” 

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Protest organizer Nakia Sparkmon could not be immediately reached for comment.

Floyd is a symbol of pride for many in the community given his Revolutionary War history. He was a member of the First Continental Congress, a major general of the Suffolk County militia and a New York state senator. The estate he was born on, called the Old Mastic House, is part of the Fire Island National Seashore. 

The 7-foot-tall bronze Floyd statue, which was placed at its current county-owned location in 2013 after a time at the Mastic-Moriches-Shirley Community Library, is cared for by the William Floyd Community Summit beautification committee. It was donated by Santo Matarazzo, an Italian-born artist who owned a summer home in the area.

Beth Wahl, president of the Summit, said that while she would be happy to speak with protesters and listen to their concerns, “it’s not that we are willing to take it down. That’s the symbol of our community. Unfortunately, [William Floyd] owned slaves, and slavery was horrible. I just don’t see how taking down his statue will change things.”

“I am not against protesting,” added Wahl, who has two black grandchildren. “I think it’s a beautiful thing. But this community is proud of the things that William Floyd did for the country. “I feel very bad. I want their issues to be heard. But this is not the issue they should be fixated on.”

Some protesters have even called for renaming the William Floyd School District and its associated buildings, including William Floyd Elementary, William Floyd Middle School and William Floyd High School.

The district’s board of education president, Robert Vecchio, could not immediately be reached for comment. 

Opinions online regarding removing the statue varied from complete support to sympathy, to staunch opposition.

“Should we venerate slave owners?” asked one commenter on the Shirley and the Mastics. Our Town, Our Community, Our Home! Facebook group. “No good done outweighs the sin of using and selling human beings as cattle. It is impossible to be a good man and own other humans.”

But others saw the situation in a more nuanced light.

“It’s all a part of American history, good or bad,” said another commenter. “Should we only keep the ‘nice’ statues? It’s HISTORY. Hopefully we can learn from it and we do not repeat it. William Floyd changed LI … Slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865. Do I think it was right that he owned slaves? No. But it was common (unfortunately) at that time to have slaves.”

And then there were others, such as the following commenter, who do not want statues in the community moved: “I would be willing to spend my time with other people standing in the way of a demolition of our historical monuments.”