Symbol of pride exits in shame
In 1776, four ships sailed from New London to raid a British base in the Bahamas, an event now recognized as the first naval expedition in American history.
One of the ships was named Columbus.
That was an early instance, maybe the first, of New London’s long and mostly happy association with Christopher Columbus. Not the man, but the symbol, which until recently evoked America’s beginnings.
Other local ships have carried the explorer’s name, including one that made eight whaling voyages. But the symbolism was most potent when harnessed by immigrant communities, especially New London’s once-thriving Italian neighborhoods.
Those days, which were already fading, ended last week with the City Council’s vote to evict the statue of the seafarer and slave trader from its Bank Street perch. It had already been spirited away by the mayor for its own safety. Ushered in with an immense civic celebration, it exited smeared with blood-red paint amid cries of “genocide.” Similar dramas are playing out across the country.
Many New Londoners are celebrating the end of this story without knowing much about its beginning. A look back provides context and suggests what the future may hold.
Forty-eight hours before it was to be unveiled, on Oct. 12, 1928, the statue still had not arrived in town, leaving its sponsors, the city’s Italian community, beside themselves. Two years earlier, they had decided to erect a monument to their famous countryman. As one of the organizers recounted, two ideas motivated them.
Grateful new citizens
“The first is to be found in their appreciation of the American life which they have chosen for the better opportunity for their children and which they themselves can enjoy,” he wrote. Columbus’ voyages, as they saw it, paved the way for that.
The second idea was to thank New London for its hospitality in welcoming them. That gratitude came at a time when Italians, who were Catholic and darker-skinned than many Americans, were abused and seen as racially inferior. For every local success story like whaling mogul Joseph Lawrence (born Giuseppe Lorenzo), there were hundreds who worked as laborers and fought occasionally violent labor battles for fair wages.
In choosing a statue of Columbus and dedicating it on Columbus Day, New London’s Italians followed a widely used playbook to seek respectability: They promoted Columbus’ place in American history so they could be part of the story.
The marble statue, carved in Pietrasanta, Italy, by sculptor Armando Battelli, had the misfortune to be shipped on a vessel carrying 3,000 cases of opium. The resulting drug bust delayed its arrival in New London until a day and a half before the unveiling.
The relieved Italians proceeded with a major celebration that helped lift them into New London’s mainstream. Though a success, the event was shaded by tragedy. A marcher collapsed and died during the parade, and 11 people were injured during a fireworks show when one of the explosives detonated amid the crowd.
A community divided
But the real drama that day reflected a divide within the Italian community. Many recall the rival neighborhoods of “Shaw Street” and “The Fort.” But not until the publication last year of Richard Lenzi’s book “Facing Toward the Dawn” was the nature of that rivalry well understood. Shaw Street largely supported Italy’s fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. The Fort was a community of anarchists.
Fascists had made inroads on Shaw Street and planned to march in the Columbus Day parade. But on their way to assemble, they were ambushed and beaten with clubs and pipes by the anarchists. Six people were arrested, but that wasn’t the end of it. A week later, one of the fascists turned up dead in the Mystic River, and their headquarters was set afire.
That was as close as Columbus got to politics in New London until this month. His reputation only grew until recently.
In 1937, the city renamed the area around the statue Columbus Square, elbowing aside the previous honoree, a Spanish-American War commander named Tyler. Twelve years later a recreation field opened in the Shaw’s Cove area and was called Columbus Park.
A changing reputation
Meanwhile, Columbus Day ceremonies continued at the statue. By 1973, the recently arrived Latino community was co-sponsoring the event. They too had a claim on the explorer, who sailed for the Spanish crown. The parade that year was led by girls representing all of the Spanish-speaking nations.
Past and future finally collided in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ famous first voyage. Thousands attended a joyous, weeklong New World Festival to see replicas of his three ships. But in a small demonstration, Native American protesters called for the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria to weigh anchor and leave New London.
“Imagine if you were Jewish and they erected a monument to Adolf Hitler in your neighborhood,” one of them said.
At the time, a different picture of Columbus was emerging from scholars. The mythic discoverer gave way to the bloodthirsty slave trader and colonizer. But for years, as statues were defaced and toppled elsewhere, New London was not stirred to rethink its own, even after officials replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on the school calendar in 2016. The following year, the City Council turned down a request to protect the statue, saying there were no serious calls for its removal.
That held true until this month, when George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer unleashed a tidal wave of protest against police brutality. Statues evoking the nation’s troubled history of oppression were targeted anew, and this time, New London’s didn’t escape protesters’ wrath.
So what happens to Columbus now? Readers on theday.com have some interesting ideas. One would send it to the Italian Dramatic Club at Fort Trumbull. That would be ironic, as the building was once home to the anarchists, who disdained nationalist symbols. The Lyman Allyn Art Museum has also been mentioned.
There are hints of other scenarios in New London’s dismal history of caring for its monuments, which have been moved around like chess pieces. It’s not just the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse, currently enjoying a layover on its never-ending journey.
In 1898, a statue honoring firefighters was unveiled at the Huntington Street courthouse. But seen from the right angle, the figure was gripping an upturned hose that left New Londoners mortified. So the statue was banished to remote Riverside Park for 60 years until the fire department reclaimed it for the Broad Street station in 1976. Today the offending perspective goes unnoticed.
The city allowed a downtown bank to kidnap another statue and display it like a trophy. In 1974, venerable John Winthrop was hauled away from his home at Bulkeley Place and installed outside the bank’s new office at Eugene O’Neill Drive and Masonic Street. After 12 years and under pressure from his neighbors, the City Council returned him home.
In this fraught moment, it’s unthinkable that the Columbus statue would ever return to Bank Street. But wherever it ends up, it will still tell a story about New London’s past, one whose most emotional chapter has just been written.
John Ruddy is copy desk chief for The Day and the author of several books on local history.
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