The Complicated History of the Christopher Columbus Statue

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This month, the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers will make its recommendation: should the Columbus monument in Columbus Circle stay? Or it should come down?

The commission is evaluating all public art on city-owned land, but the Columbus monument is one of a handful that has sparked controversy; some are calling for these statues to be removed.

For those advocating that the statue come down, their reasons are clear: according to them, Columbus was a rapist, a murderer, and his actions led to the genocide of an indigenous people. He didn't "discover" America (in fact, he never set foot in North America), but rather, landed on a few Caribbean Islands. And as the governor of Hispaniola, he was a brutal leader.

But many Italian Americans see Columbus from a different perspective: the voyager who is a symbol of Italian American migrants. And they want the monument on 59th Street to stay up: because they built it.

A Wave of Immigrants

In the 1890s, tens of thousands of Southern Italians came to the United States looking for work. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of people came, finding jobs in factories and as laborers and then sending money home to their families. But the sheer number of immigrants, with their different language and food and in many cases, darker skin, led to a growing sense of resentment, anger and acts of violence.

In 1891, 11 Sicilians who had been acquitted of murder were then lynched in New Orleans. It was one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.

This act of mob violence had surprising support: Future president Teddy Roosevelt wrote a letter to his sister referring to the Italians as "dagos" and called the lynchings "rather a good thing."

Many Italians living in the United States were scared and wanted to find a way to be accepted in their new country. For those immigrants who lived in New York City, they decided that one of the best ways to do that was to put up a statue of Christopher Columbus.

Columbus: An American Icon

A statue seemed like a good idea for several different reasons.

First, the City Beautiful Movement had begun, and decorating urban centers with monuments and statues was all the rage. Plus, as architectural historian Francis Marrone explained, Italians came from a country full of statuary in public places, and full of artisans who created those beautiful works. This was a gift to New York City that could be created by their kinsmen.

They chose Columbus because, for a century, he had been adopted as a symbol of the United States.

After the American Revolution, people wanted heroes who weren't British, but were still historic figures. A mythology grew up around Columbus, thanks to a partly-fictional biography by New Yorker Washington Irving. Irving painted the Italian-born explorer as a hero who broke with the Old World. In the newly-founded republic, there were soon cities and cultural centers called "Columbus" or "Columbia" everywhere: Columbus, Ohio; Columbia University; the District of Columbia. The song "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean" even became an unofficial national anthem, similar to "America the Beautiful."

William Connell, an American history professor at Seton Hall University, said that Italians who immigrated to the U.S. didn’t come with the idea that Columbus was their hero also. But when they saw how Americans loved Columbus, they embraced him as one of their own.

And with the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage approaching in 1892, they had the perfect opportunity to share in that national pride and establish themselves as Americans.

The Pride of the New York Italian Community

Carlo Barsotti, the publisher of the ethnic newspaper Il Progresso Italo Americano hit on a plan. Every Italian American business would be asked to contribute small amounts of money to install a statue of Columbus. While no business paid more than $200, Barsotti raised a total of $20,000.

The sculpture was made of Italian marble by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo, then shipped to the U.S. on an Italian boat with an Italian crew, and finally, erected on land prepared by Italian laborers with pickaxes and spades.

The day of the installation ceremony, Oct. 12, 1892, there were 10,000 spectators.

"It was a remarkable scene," said Connell. "Opera stars, music, bands. There were the local dignitaries, the mayor, all of the Italian businessmen, lots of banners waving." The monument was a success.

But that was then.

How Far Italian Americans Have Come

Last month, Joseph Guagliardo, the president of a group representing major Italian American organizations, told the Monuments Commission that as a "street kid" in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he was inspired by the Columbus monument.

“I had pictures of it in my house, that, the Pope and Jesus,” he told WNYC. He said that his grandmother took him to Columbus Circle and told him that he was a voyager — and that his own family had voyaged to America, too. Columbus made him feel hopeful, and like he was connected to something important.

Many Italian American New Yorkers feel this same sense of connection. "He became so identified with the community they feel like any attack on Columbus is an attack on them," said Mary Anne Trasciatti, a professor at Hofstra University. She said that the monument is now a symbol of how far they've come.

And she understands, because her own grandparents came from central Italy. They were coal miners and garment workers, like many other Italian immigrants. "We were mostly working people, typically at the bottom rung of the employment ladder, above only African Americans," she said.

That's why she thinks that there are better representations of Italian immigration than Columbus who, she said, doesn't represent the actual people who migrated.

Trasciatti doesn't believe the monument should be taken down, but she does think another one that honors Italian laborers should be built nearby. A second monument in conversation with the first, she said, could tell a more complex story about the history of migration to America — and the ways our identity is shaped by which history we choose to embrace.

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