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Towns and schools wrestle with the legacy of Columbus

Statues of Christopher Columbus across the country have been toppled, beheaded, spray-painted and, in New London, removed and hidden away in a warehouse.

On Columbus Day this year, the legacy of the Italian explorer continues to spark debate in the U.S. over whether Columbus should be honored as a symbol of hope for Italian Americans who struggled to assimilate in the U.S., or reviled as the man whose arrival in the Americas led to countless deaths of Indigenous peoples.

So while Columbus Day remains a federal holiday, various organizations and school districts across the state have opted to instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day or some other alternative.

New London’s City Council went a step further than permanently removing the Columbus statue last year and passed a resolution exchanging Columbus Day with Italian Heritage Day. The month of October is now designated as Italian American Heritage Month and November as Native American Heritage Month.

City Councilor Curtis Goodwin said the original idea was to exchange Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. After the Columbus statue was removed, however, Goodwin said he had numerous conversations with Italian Americans and learned more about their struggles, peresrverance and dedication to the community.

“It occurred to me the best way forward was to show that we can honor everyone,” Goodwin said.

It took focus away from Columbus, a man Goodwin said “should not be written in the history books as a hero.” He foresees a continuing conversation and fight by Native Americans and Indigenous peoples for relevance in the history books.

And while some schools have opted to remove the Columbus Day holiday from schools, most have not. The Stonington Board of Education, in a 3-2 vote in August, changed Indigenous Peoples Day back to Columbus Day. The move came under criticism by some who said there had not been enough public discussion about the move. There were also erroneous claims the district was teaching critical race theory.

New London Mayor Michael Passero had proactively removed the 90-year-old Columbus statue last year amid protests and acts of vandalism in the wake the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police while handcuffed in Minneapolis. The statue had been unveiled in 1928, a gift to the city from the Italian American community.

While he is proud of his Italian heritage, Passero said Columbus is simply offensive to too many people.

“I didn’t grow up understanding the historical Columbus the way we understand him now. He was a historical figure associated with Italian heritage," Passero said. "It turns out they picked the wrong guy."

There have been no city-sponsored Columbus Day celebrations in recent memory, but Passero said he welcomes any efforts to recognize Italian Americans on the new holiday.

“We’re just understanding that the real intention is to celebrate Italian heritage, especially in New London where we had a lot of immigrants who contributed to the development of the city. We don’t want to muddy waters with a historical figure who turns out to be a pariah,” he said.

Tribes' response 

New London’s push for the removal of the Columbus statue coincided with a backlash against what some consider symbols of white supremacy and racism.

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation issued a blunt statement on the issue that read in part, “Times are changing, and a growing number of people no longer support monuments or holidays celebrating individuals like Columbus or those that perpetuate systemic racism. Such change is long overdue.”

“Christopher Columbus is a complicated historical figure in American history. While Columbus is a symbol of Italian and Catholic heritage and is credited with connecting the eastern and western hemispheres, he also represents our country’s dark and painful past. For Native Americans and other people of color, he symbolizes genocide, enslavement, displacement — all of which are rooted in racism — and much more. Celebrating his legacy with statues is a stark reminder of the heinous acts committed against Indigenous people by him and other colonizers worldwide.”

Melissa Tantaquidgeon-Zobel, the medicine woman and tribal historian for the Mohegan Tribe, issued a statement to acknowledge celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day.

“The Mohegan Tribe is pleased to honor the heritage of all indigenous people on this day, including our neighbors throughout the Americas, as well as Native people from every continent throughout the world. Certainly, this is a day to celebrate individuals, tribal nations and the traditions that they have fought to maintain, in the face of centuries of assaults on their languages and cultures by settler colonialism.”

Saving the statues

Dan Onofrio, the immediate past president of the Connecticut chapter of the national Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, said he and others scrambled last year to help salvage statues. He said he made numerous unsuccessful attempts to reach Passero in the days leading up to the removal of the Columbus statue.

A first-generation Italian American, Onofrio said his organization was hoping to collaborate with municipalities to find homes for the statues under attack. While he empathizes with the people demonstrating for social justice, he said Columbus represented new hope for Italian immigrants and was a source of pride for people treated as second-class citizens upon their arrival in the United States.

“The country was built on diverse cultures. Can’t we just figure out a way to unify. It’s hard to look forward on where we’re going if we don’t acknowledge our past,” Onofrio said. “I want to come up with a solution.”

He said he was heartened to find New London still acknowledging the Italian American experience but said he hoped the city might consider what he called “a unifying solution to preserve what it (the Columbus statue) means to lot of people and their families.”

He points to the city of Norwalk as a good example of compromise. The city last year removed a Columbus statue from a public space and, in coordination with the Columbus Memorial Fund, the group that maintained the statute found it a new home at a private Italian American club.

New London wasn’t the only municipality locally to address Columbus.

The Norwich Italian Heritage and Cultural Committee last year removed wording and a bust of Columbus engraved on the side of the Italian Heritage Monument at Chelsea Parade.

Westerly celebrates Columbus  

In contrast to the removal of Columbus statues, the owners of the Columbus statue in Wilcox Park in Westerly have opted to protect what the Memorial and Library Association of Westerly board of trustees calls “an exemplary example of local artisan craftsmanship and specimen of Westerly Granite.”

The board, in response to acts of vandalism, opted to install new cameras linked to the Westerly Police Department, better lighting and a gated enclosure for the area surrounding the statue. Work on the metal enclosure is underway and is expected to have a gate open during library hours of operation.

Westerly and neighboring Stonington also host the annual Westerly-Pawcatuck Columbus Day Parade, which began in 1947 and is one of Rhode Island's largest parades. It was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but is slated to return on Oct. 9, 2022.   

g.smith@theday.com

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