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Columbus Circle without Columbus? New York's statue debate hits Italian-Americans hard

The famous memorial, donated to the city by immigrants in 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage, has been caught up in the nationwide controversy over the meaning of history and the purpose of public monuments.

Cameron Bloch/AP/File
Traffic goes around New York's Columbus Circle and its 70-foot-tall column topped by a statue of Christopher Columbus. A movement to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day has new momentum, but the gesture to recognize victims of European colonialism has also prompted outrage from some Italian Americans, who say eliminating their festival of ethnic pride is culturally insensitive, too.

When Joseph Guagliardo was a street kid growing up in Red Hook in Brooklyn, the statue of Christopher Columbus at the southwest corner of Central Park in Manhattan made him swell with pride.

His grandmother, Giavanna, who arrived from Sicily near the turn of the century and, like many immigrants, Anglicized her name and went by Jenny, would take him on the subway to see the 76-foot-high memorial at the center of Columbus Circle. She’d tell him the story of how Italian immigrants, most with barely enough money to get by, scraped together enough to donate the statue to the city – a tradition he now continues with his twin teenage daughters, Isabella and Emma.

“My grandmother had three pictures hanging on a great big wall her entire life: the pope, Jesus, and Columbus,” says Mr. Guagliardo, who heads The National Council of Columbia Associations, a Brooklyn-based coalition of Italian-American civic groups from around the United States that continue to see the explorer as an icon of American resilience.

But the famous memorial, donated to the city by immigrants in 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage, has now been caught up in the nationwide controversy over the meaning of history, the purpose of public monuments, and the troubling connections many have to the country’s history of white supremacy.

“But for me it’s personal, I take it personal,” says Guagliardo. For him, the history of the monument itself recalls a time when Italians were considered an inferior, darker-skinned minority and its immigrants had to fight to become part of what they saw as the promise of America.

“My grandmother always told me that Christopher Columbus was a voyager, that he took a journey, the same way my grandparents did, on both sides. She never said he was a saint, she never said he was perfect,” he continues. “Just like him, they didn’t know where they were going, they didn’t know what they were headed toward in a new world. She thought if you push beyond your own limitations, you’ll be successful, you’ll succeed.”

The controversy over the history of Columbus’s legacy is hardly new, but after the deadly events of Charlottesville, Va., in August, when groups of white nationalists and Neo-Nazis held a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in a public park, the stakes have been raised in ways Guagliardo never imagined.

Later this month, a mayoral advisory commission will conclude a 90-day review of what Mayor Bill de Blasio called an effort to remove “all symbols of hate on city property,” and offer recommendations about the fate of the Columbus monument and other controversial memorials in the city.

'Complicated moral and historical kaleidoscope'

Yet the controversies in New York have in many ways presented a more “complicated moral and historical kaleidoscope” than the debates over Confederate monuments, some scholars suggest. The issues here have not involved celebrating defeated generals who rebelled against the United States and fought to preserve slavery – and whose memorials are currently being embraced by a visible and vocal cadre of white supremacists.

Some of the issues, in fact, put many New York Italians on the other side of the statue debate. The mayor’s advisory commission is also evaluating a statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, standing in front of the city’s beloved American Museum of Natural History, just a few blocks north of Columbus Circle.

For many Italian-Americans, the nation’s rough-riding 26th president and former New York City police chief is remembered as much for his views on white supremacy, eugenics, and his casual approval of the 1891 lynchings of eight Italian-American men in New Orleans, just 1-1/2 years before the statue of Columbus was dedicated to the city of New York.

“The debates we’re having bring to light how multiple and often competing narratives exist about people and historical circumstances, and it is forcing an effort to try and reconcile these narratives,” says Robert Futrell, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“These are big questions that go beyond an individual monument and to the question of history, stories, and how a multicultural society views itself,” he says.

'How do we weigh the good versus the bad?'

For many Americans, including many in New York’s Puerto Rican community, Columbus hardly represents American resilience. From the moment he arrived in the New World, he immediately seized six Taino natives, remarking in his log that the people here would make good servants.

He went on to be a brutal ruler, enslaving many in the local population – including selling children into sexual slavery – and resorting to massacre and mutilation to maintain control. Within 60 years of his arrival, only a few hundred of an estimated population of nearly 250,000 Tainos survived the brutality and disease brought by European colonists, historians say. The arrival of Columbus in many ways marked the death knell for the native civilizations that had flourished for millennia, inaugurating a history of genocide and destruction.  

“People, I think, are engaged with some really serious moral and ethical considerations of, how do we weigh the good versus the bad?” says Erika Doss, author of “Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America” and professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

“Supporters often say, 'You can’t take that down, that’s our history,’ ” she says. “In fact, this is memory, this is not history per se. So let’s talk about what we consider the values of today. Do these memories, these monuments and memorials uphold those values, support those values, or are they valueless?”

And the context of communal memory matters. Defenders of Confederate memorials in the South have denounced their removals as “the hatred being leveled against our glorious ancestors by radical leftists who seek to erase our history.”

But critics point out that the majority of the nation’s Confederate monuments were erected during two particularly tense times: the early 20th century, when states were instituting Jim Crow segregation; and the 1950s and 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement, according to an analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“They were less about the Civil War and cultural values and more about racial intimidation,” says Professor Doss.

Why Italian-Americans embraced Columbus

By contrast, Italian New Yorkers focus on their collective memories at the end of the 19th century, when tens of thousands of immigrants arrived seeking a better life. Yet they were often reviled for their language, Catholic faith, and foreign traditions – which at the time did not include a reverence for Columbus.

That reverence, in fact, was part of American folklore, created in part by writers like New York’s Washington Irving, who portrayed the Italian-born voyager as a hero who rejected the old world and embraced the new. The new republic, seeking a founding mythology, went on to name cities and streets after the person who “discovered America.”

So Italian immigrants adopted Columbus as one of their own, a symbol of their own portion of the new life offered by America. He became an icon to their own connection to the New World and the voyages so many had made.

“And at the time, we were suffering under the American flag, too,” says Guagliardo. “Eight Italians were acquitted of a homicide in New Orleans, and then they were lynched!” To this day, many Italian New Yorkers maintain an enormous antipathy toward Roosevelt.

Indeed, Roosevelt was known for a whole range of things: being a soldier, being an early environmentalist, being president, being the guy who busted Wall Street trusts.

But he has also become potentially problematic, given his well-known views on Anglo-Saxon supremacy and his near proto-Nazi ideas on the need for better breeding.

“Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world,” he wrote to a leading eugenics researcher in 1913, “and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.”

Understanding the past on its own terms

And Roosevelt was hardly the only famous figure to hold such views, scholars note. Winston Churchill, Alexander Graham Bell, and Margaret Sanger each promoted eugenics and held racist views.

“A common fallacy in history is to attribute current beliefs and moral interpretations to historical actors,” says Mitchell Langbert, a professor at the Koppelman School of Business at Brooklyn College. “The past needs to be understood in its own terms, and the effects of admittedly brutal historical actors like Columbus are not in the immoral things that they did … but in one or two unique things they did that changed their world.”

“Roosevelt is another story, because he was one of the good guys, relatively speaking,” argues Professor Langbert, noting the progressive Republican’s 1905 speech on the state of race relations, when he warned an audience at the New York City Republican Club: “The debasement of the blacks will, in the end, carry with it the debasement of the whites.”

The commission is also considering another statue in Central Park, that of J. Marion Sims, an Alabama doctor considered one of the greatest surgeons of his day. As the so-called “father of modern gynecology,” he developed breakthrough treatments for childbirth injuries, and he founded the first hospital in New York devoted to treating women.

Yet Sims’ work was conducted on female slaves in Alabama, often without anesthesia and, by definition, without their consent.

'How far will this extend?'

If the debate has raised serious moral and ethical considerations of how New Yorkers and others weigh the good versus the bad in history, it has also raised the context of how people celebrate the good, and the message statues send about the values a society chooses to uphold. The Roosevelt statue shows the Rough Rider on horseback flanked by two attendants: a Native American man in a headdress and a bare-chested African man standing on the ground beneath him.

“These monuments, particularly the Statue to Roosevelt, directly communicate a message of superiority and inferiority along racialized lines,” said Native American artist Jackson Polys, who recently joined more than 100 scholars and artists to call for its removal. “The danger is that this message is normalized daily, not only by adults but by more than 300,000 school children per year, reproducing harmful divisions. How far will this extend to our future generations?”

It’s a process that scholars say every society has confronted as time, and memory, press on.

“Nothing’s permanent. Even though we have these bronze and marble memorials in our midst, they’re not necessarily permanent or fixed in terms of how we think about ourselves – and in America the national narrative is constantly shifting,” says Doss. “From the time of the Egyptians, Romans, and so on, in fact, memorials and monuments were constantly being removed, defaced, vandalized in order to uphold current social values.”

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