June 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Philadelphia, in front of the George Washington statue and memorial to the unkown soldiers buried in Washington Square. Photo credit: Chris Henry

Take down of Christopher Columbus statues shows shift in more accurate, inclusive American narrative

Some celebrate the removal of Christopher Columbus statues, while others fiercely protect them to remain. What is clear, American history is changing.

Last year, two statues of Christopher Columbus were withdrawn from public display in Newark, New Jersey. One sat prominently in Military Park, the other, in front of St. Francis Xavier Church. At the height of the George Floyd protests against anti-Black violence and police killings, Mayor Ras Baraka commissioned the late-night removal of the Christopher Columbus statue in the park. The other effigy was dismounted by private citizens.

The removal of the statues were two incidents of a little over three dozen Christopher Columbus statues taken down throughout the country. At the same time, a Bloomberg report recorded 149 sculptures still standing. The remaining Columbus statues mark the late fifteenth-century explorer being the second most popular historical figure featured in a U.S. memorial. 

On the other hand, the Columbus carvings have become a site of cultural contention. Right now, one of the more controversial battles is in Philadelphia. A city where Italian ice vendors and pizza are common culinary representations of the stronghold of Italian descendants still there, the Friends of Marconi Plaza sought legal backing to unbox an old-standing Columbus statue. The appeal happened just ahead of this past weekend’s Columbus Day parade that draws thousands.

Christopher Columbus Monument at 2848 S Broad Street in Philadelphia. Statue by sculptor, Emanuele Caroni, in 1876. Photo credit: Creative Commons

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At first, the courts approved for the 145-year-old carving to be freed of its wooded covering. “It is baffling to this court as to how the city of Philadelphia wants to remove the statue without any legal basis. The city’s entire argument and case is devoid of any legal foundation,” Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick wrote.

Then a last-minute judgement favored the city’s appeal to keep the lid on Columbus for community safety. Regardless, the parade completed its route at the statue where signs expressing opposition of the veiled monument perched on the surrounding fence.

In 2020, the statue became a location where demonstrators targeted the removal of statues around the country of historical people linked to the atrocities of American colonial and slave pasts. In response, local residents who wanted the Columbus monument to remain, stood watch to prevent the pulling down or desecration of the statue. Armed with baseball bats, metal poles and even two people reportedly carrying rifles, circled the memorial. 

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

For years, the popular mythic legend around Columbus included his heroic discovery of the Americas in a historic sailing from Spain to the present-day island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Really, the purpose of the sojourn was for the mapmaking mariner from Genoa, a northeast coastal region located in today’s Italy, to uncover a new route to East Asia. In schools, students often learned of this feat through a clever children’s rhyme.

While the more accurate histories surrounding the account of Cristoforo Colombo, his Italian name, and his travels to the “New World,” several Italian-American groups staunchly fight for the European colonial settler to maintain his prominence in a narrative that is false.

The biggest lie about Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas. He did not. 

Indigenous nations lived throughout the vast continents and islands off of the mainland for thousands or more years before the celebrated conquistador arrived. To further disrupt claims that Columbus made it to the Americas, 500 years prior, Leif Erikson, a Viking explorer landed with his Norse fleet in what is now New England terrain. 

Another sordid fact about Columbus is his oft-practiced acts in tyranny and massacre. Documents from Columbus uncover how he and his brother, Bartolomé, participated in the unquenchable, mass killing of Arawak and Taino Native groups. His arrival, by Native nations, marked what is called, the “Terrorism of Columbus.” For them, Columbus was the first American terrorist who contributed to the mass murder of four million indigenous people.

Some of the brutalities, left in his writings, detail of rape, forced sex work and unrelenting torture of Native adults and children, along with other acts of genocide. So unsavory were his deeds, he was arrested by Spanish authorities, deported back to Europe and jailed. Columbus died without much in his purse, but still attempting to get Spain to pay him what he thought they owed. He also died thinking that he landed somewhere in East Asia.

So, how did Columbus become the patron saint of European exploration for Americans? Propaganda, of course. 

At the turn of the twentieth-century, Italian Americans began immigrating to North and South America. In all, approximately four million arrived, but eventually, half returned. During this time, Italy was a new nation-state working to etch out a global identity after waves of upheaval and economic instability. Creating a united Italian identity amongst its diaspora, was a tactic employed through the media.

In the U.S., Italians faced opposition in their efforts of complete inclusion as white Americans. Part of the discourse included Congressional hearings on whether Italian immigrants, most arriving as a peasant class from Southern Italy, a location that almost kisses North Africa, could be “full blooded Caucasians.” With the help of the Catholic church and Italian immigrant organizations, the advocacy of whiteness was pushed heavily through the celebration of Christopher Columbus as an American hero. Subsequently, Italian groups hosted parades in the name of the disgraced sailor as entry into the mainstream American white narrative.

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Italian filmmakers began importing movies across the Atlantic in the early 1900s. The films framed Italians coming from a culturally rich country with resplendent art and strong familial values. To this day, Italy is the most one of the most visited countries. So much so, about 17 percent of its GDP comes from tourism. Later, 1970s movies such as “The Godfather” movies, reified Sicilian mafia culture. But, the infamy filmic text grew a certain type of respected, national notoriety that still exists.

Once World War II started, Italians were naturalized in droves, becoming one of the last fair-skinned, European immigrant groups welcomed into the status of white Americans. Now, Italian groups fight for Columbus to remain a part of a narrative that does not focus on his violent past, but one that recognizes the story of immigration.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfood ordered the removal of three Columbus statues last year. The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans ended up suing the city. “These statues were not put up to specifically to honor Columbus the man or his accomplishments. They were put here to honor our parents and grandparents who help[ed] build this city,” said Ronald Onesti, the president of JCCIA, the group that ended up suing the city. 

Switching to an idea of assimilation and diversity is the talking points used by such groups. Along with their allegations that it erases the presence and contributions of Italians, supporters of the statues claim that their gutting is an act of hate.

Protestors in Philadelphia. Photo credit: Maurice Harris

Moving towards a more inclusive, truthful American history

When Newark’s Mayor Baraka announced the new plans for the former site where the Columbus statue sat, he expressed that his desire was to not offend Italians. The Columbus statue was a gift from its Italian residents and their descendants. The monument titled, “Christopher Columbus: Immortal Genoese,” has been up since Oct. 12, 1997.

Yet and still, the removal of the Columbus statue signifies the drastic shift in the city. Originally, the Lenni Lenape nation and other Native groups lived on the land until Dutch settlers relocated from what is today called the state of Connecticut. The Dutch established New Ark in 1666.

Earlier in 2021, the city launched a nationwide competition for a designer to replace the Columbus statue for a memorial honoring Harriet Tubman. As a result, New York-based artist, Nina Cooke John, was selected by a 14-member jury selection of art experts, historians and community stakeholders. The date of the opening of Tubman Square has yet to be announced.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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