Statues of Christopher Columbus and Italian-Americans

Columbus Cirlce

Columbus Circle (Wikimedia Commons)

In case you have not heard, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio is considering removing the statue of Christopher Columbus in the circle that bears his name.  David Marcus of The Weekly Standard explains how that statue got there:

The earliest celebration of Columbus in North America took place in in 1792. A newly formed New York City government called Tammany celebrated the 300th anniversary of his discovery of America. Eight years earlier, the Manhattan college formerly known as Kings College had been renamed, Columbia. This happened before many people who actually were Italian became residents of the world’s first constitutional democracy, and it greatest city. One hundred years later, Italians would begin to pour through Ellis Island like water drained through pasta. By 1900, Italians were becoming a fixture in the United States.

These Italian immigrants weren’t greeted warmly. In the 1890s, a group of Sicilian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. Few Italian Americans today would suggest that they faced greater bigotry than blacks have. But, the lynching happened, and it is a part of our country’s dark history of racial resentment. In the wake of this bigoted violence, Il Progresso, the leading Italian language newspaper of the time in New York City, began a campaign to raise money for a statue of Columbus, as a gift to the city, and a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.

It worked: Small dollar donations led to an image of Columbus towering over the city. Italian immigrants chose Columbus as their avatar for good reasons. Not only was he a great man, who had inaugurated the trade between the New and Old World, he was a founding father of America. Only the Norwegians with Leif Erickson had a similar figure, but he was a tourist, not a man who changed the course of history.

This is interesting.  Many have argued that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments need to be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a way of glorifying the “Lost Cause” and white supremacy.  In other words, we need to understand these monuments in light of the meaning they carried at the time they were erected.  Could a similar argument be made for Columbus statues?

I am half-Italian.  I have spent a lot of time listening to my late grandfather (died a few years ago at the age of 103) talk about discrimination against Italian-Americans. White Americans treated him as a member of another race.  None of my grandfather’s stories about working in the breweries of Newark, New Jersey were as bad as the lynchings that Italians suffered in 1890s New Orleans.  And like Marcus, I do not pretend to believe that the story of Italian-Americans is synonymous with the sufferings faced by African Americans in this country.  That would be bad history.  But Columbus became a symbol of pride for Italian-Americans.  The statue in Columbus Circle, as Marcus points out, was erected “as a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.”

What do you think?  Should Columbus go?

4 thoughts on “Statues of Christopher Columbus and Italian-Americans

  1. As one who had an office ar 61st and Broadway for many, many years, I looked at Columbus Circle and the statue of Columbus every day. And as one of Scandinvian descent with the same last name of the earliest known visitor to a land which had inhabitants from long before I was well aware of the gaps and inconsistencies in the Collumbus discovery story. But I still enjoyed the sight. And appreciated the symbolism. And I hope the statue stays.

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  2. Keep Columbus. Like a lot of these we memorialize with statues, their larger significance to the nation’s history can supersede individual atrocities committed. I do think efforts to place statements of objective historical context at these sites would be a reasonable compromise.


  3. I’m interested in whether he was really a “hero” to the Italian-American community; a source of pride and inspiration? I’ve always heard the story told cynically that he was selected as an available icon to enhance prestige/status, rather than existing as an organic figure with whom Italian-Americans identified. I think that makes a bit of a difference.

    Of course, the choice of Columbus in the first place is historically problematic. He was not “Italian” but “Genoan,” Genoa being a sovereign state that only 300 years after Columbus was absorbed into a state called Sardinia, which itself was to forge a larger state called “Italy” 50 years hence. It was often at war with some of the other states that later comprised Italy. Venetian military victory over Genoa was, after all, one reason Genoese sailors like Columbus were looking for new jobs in the Iberian Peninsula. Presumably some of the “Italian” people who promoted Columbus as an American hero may actually have been descendants of people who lived in states such as Naples that Columbus was, at one point, actually involved in militarily assailing!


  4. I am an Italian from Brooklyn, New York and I grew up in New York City frequenting Central Park and Columbus Circle. This is the second article I have read today exploring the renaming of a landmark (non-monument). The first was regarding the renaming of Faneuil Hall in Boston (where I went to college) because Peter Faneuil was a slave owner and slave trader. Link

    These issues are so complicated, but as you so eloquently mention, Columbus was a symbol of pride for Italian Americans. In the renaming of monuments or in the reframing of our American narrative, are there any innocents? Can any nation-state or any republican leader live in a glass house? I don’t know, but I know I want to still say, “Meet me in Columbus Circle.” That is part of my history.


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