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There's a Columbus statue in Westerly, too

It is interesting to me that, as Christopher Columbus statues tumble around the country amid a wave of vandalism and protest over the murderous explorer's brutality, one still presides solemnly, undisturbed, at the entrance to Wilcox Park in downtown Westerly.

I have not heard one public peep about Columbus' position of prominence in Westerly, a stone's throw from the stately Town Hall.

In Providence, the Columbus statue has been secured with a wooden box and fenced in, a makeshift fortress. Still, three people, all white, were arrested last weekend on felony charges in the latest vandalism against the statue.

In New London, of course, the City Council voted 6-0 to take down the city's Columbus statue, a decision marked this week by a celebratory rally, with dancing by Native American performers.

Authorities in New London also say they are not going to pursue vandalism charges related to a Black Lives Matter protest march in the city, when the Columbus statue, then still standing at Bank and Howard streets, was defaced with red paint.

In Westerly, though, there hasn't been any public demonstration against the prominent monument to the slave trader.

I suppose the demographics of the communities have something to do with this.

Much of the new animosity about Columbus memorials has grown out of the Black Lives Matter movement, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and Westerly, according to census data, is 91% white. A large number of residents claim Italian heritage.

In New London, where Italian Americans originally donated the Columbus statue in a show of community pride in their heritage, the population is 56% white.

The Westerly statue is part of a plaza terrace at the entrance to downtown Wilcox Park.

Bill Lancellotta, assistant director of Westerly Library & Wilcox Park, a private, nonprofit corporation, told me the organization trustees began discussions this week about the fate of the Columbus statue. He said the talks included a wide range of ideas, including removing the statue or adding signage, to put it in better historical context. They also hope for community input, he said.

There have been no calls for its removal, although the organization has received some emails from the public inquiring about its future, he added.

Lancellotta said research also has begun into how the statue came to be erected in the park and whether the organization actually owns it.

The statue is dated 1949 and an inscription on the back of the pedestal says it was dedicated by the citizens of Westerly and Pawcatuck, the village in Stonington just over the Rhode Island/Connecticut state line. The inscription on the front calls Columbus an "INTREPID ITALIAN EXPLORER WHO LINKED THE OLD WORLD OF OUR FATHERS TO THE NEW WORLD OF OUR SONS."

Lancellotta said there is no timetable for making a decision about the statue.

Given the uncertainty about the ownership of the statue, I also left messages this week with Westerly Town Manager Mark Rooney but never heard back from him.

I don't blame him for not wanting to talk about it.

But I think a difficult community conversation is coming his way.

Residents of Stonington, given the inclusion of Pawcatuck on the statue dedication inscription, should probably be heard from, too.

I was glad New London acted so quickly to take down its Columbus statue, in light of the outcry by so many people who said it insulted them.

It will be interesting to see how a community conversation unfolds in Westerly.

I believe the lovely Wilcox Park, the epicenter of so much community pride, would be all the better without a statue honoring someone who brutalized and murdered thousands of people.

I'm sure there is a much better way to honor the Italian heritage of so many residents who over the decades have made Westerly a wonderful community.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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