Group seeks protection of New London's Columbus statue

In this  Tuesday, April 18, 2017 Day file photo, Volunteer Sue Davis, with the New London Beautification Committee, works on cleaning up the garden at Columbus Square in New London. A group led by local conservative talk show host Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh is seeking protection of the Christopher Columbus Statue off Bank Street despite the fact city officials said there have been no serious calls for its removal. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
In this Tuesday, April 18, 2017 Day file photo, Volunteer Sue Davis, with the New London Beautification Committee, works on cleaning up the garden at Columbus Square in New London. A group led by local conservative talk show host Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh is seeking protection of the Christopher Columbus Statue off Bank Street despite the fact city officials said there have been no serious calls for its removal. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

New London – A divisive national debate about public statues of historical figures has reached New London.

A group led by local conservative talk show host Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh is seeking protection of the Christopher Columbus statue off Bank Street despite the fact city officials said there have been no serious calls for its removal.

Hopkins-Cavanagh organized what she called a “Stand for Columbus” event on Monday, hosting a get-together at her home and issuing a demand that the city not only appraise and “legally protect” the statue but also restore Columbus Day to the school calendar.

More than a dozen people attended the City Council meeting to back Hopkins-Cavanagh, calling the move in New London and across the country to drop Columbus Day as a holiday anti-Christian and discounting accounts of Columbus as a colonizer responsible for the enslavement and killing of indigenous people.

“I’m not going to sit back and let this happen to our city and America. I’m going to sue any town that takes down a Columbus statue. Nobody should be persecuting the Italian-Americans,” Hopkins-Cavanagh said. “We’ve got to stop it.”

Hopkins-Cavanagh also demanded an apology from the New London school board for what she called their act of “cultural Marxism” and the political indoctrination of students.

The New London school district last year replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

Zak Leavy, a member of the school board who first introduced the measure for Indigenous Peoples Day, said the board had no plans to revisit the issue.

“It is well documented that Christopher Columbus engaged in genocide and engaged in just awful things that do not deserve to have — in my opinion and in the board’s opinion by a 7-0 vote — a day to be recognized and celebrated in our schools, especially considering our proximity to local Native American tribes,” Leavy said.

Rafael Ortiz, who has authored a yet to be published book called “Columbus the Hero” and attended Monday’s City Council meeting, said he had researched Columbus’ life through original sources and called the newer accounts of Columbus as revisionist history.

The city's Columbus statue is located in a parklet off Bank Street, near Harbour Towers. The marble statue was purchased for $7,000 and donated to the city in 1928 by the city’s Italian community. Harbour Towers in 2009 donated a plaque engraved with the names of the original members of the Italian-American Civic Association from 1928.

The movement to protect New London’s statue appears to have its origin in a letter to the editor in The Day in which Waterford resident Megara Sanderson de Abreu proposed a petition to remove the statue.

“New London needs new heroes; ones who represent peace and freedom, who served thus country to make it a better place for all,” she wrote. “Christopher Columbus represents genocide and now, during our country’s current climate, is the perfect time to topple symbols of hate …”

In a phone interview on Monday, de Abreu said her letter was meant in part to help spark debate.

“I think it should personally bother everybody. This is an insult to historical accuracy. He didn’t discover America and had no real positive influence on our country or city,” she said.

“I can respect the sentiment behind honoring Italian-Americans from our area but I assume there are other heroes we can look to besides someone who committed genocide,” she said.

New London resident Don Macrino, the headmaster at St. Bernard School, said he understands the sensitivity to Civil War statues in the south and throughout the country and acknowledged he was brought up with the “sanitized history” of Columbus as an explorer.

“Since that time I’ve come to understand there were some dark sides to it,” he said.

But he said he viewed the Columbus statue as more of an artifact representing the explorer spirit of Italian heritage.

“I almost think there’s too much distance to make that an issue now. It’s been a focal point in downtown New London. It’s a piece of art. I think those people knowledgeable about history realize most of our heroes weren’t as clean as we like to think.”

He said the answer is teaching history accurately.

Mayor Michael Passero called Hopkins-Cavanagh’s calls for protection of the statue an act of self-promotion.

“Nobody’s raised any objection to that historic monument,” Passero said. “I would absolutely oppose any attempt to remove it. I’m not defending Christopher Columbus … but that means more in this community. In the historical context it’s more of a legacy of the Italian heritage of New London. You’re not going to wipe that out.”

g.smith@theday.com

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