By Rick Romano
Christopher Columbus’s journey through history has hit more turbulent waters.
In addition to a decades-long focus on the explorer’s treatment of natives in the western hemisphere, Columbus now is embroiled along with other questionable historical figures in the national spotlight of social and racial justice—an aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
As part of that aftermath, vandals targeted Arrigo Park’s Columbus statue in multiple attacks, splattering pink, blue, and black paint on the statue overnight on June 12 to 13. Several days after local residents immediately cleaned the statue with the help of Chicago Park District staff, vandals again hit the figure with similar hues and an obscene message directed toward police and signed it “Black Lives Matter.”
Gazette Chicago tried contacting the local Black Lives Matter several times for comment, as well as Alderman Jason Ervin and the Chicago Park District. They did not respond.
By June 17, Park District staff had wrapped the statue in a blue tarp to protect it from further damage. The covering did not hide the feelings of representatives of local Italian American organizations.
Italian American views
Joe Esposito, president of the Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association (LICNA) said the latest attack “wasn’t that big of a shock because we have been through this before. What are you going to do, stand out there 24/7? Police patrol the area and the Park District has been around.”
Esposito said the statue “is a part of history. It’s been here for more than 50 years. There are pictures of families from years ago gathered around the statue. It is a big deal.
“I don’t think we want it moved or taken down,” he continued. “We would never go into another ethnic neighborhood and tell others how to celebrate their heritage.”
Bill Dal Cerro, senior analyst for the Italic Institute of America, said his organization takes a more nuanced view of Columbus than only superhero or villain.
“We don’t agree with either extreme,” Dal Cerro said. “The reason a lot of Italian Americans are on edge is because Columbus is the only figure at one time that they admired. The culture and media stigmatize Italian Americans, so the question is more of when do we get to celebrate? History is very complicated.”
Lissa Druss, spokesperson for the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA), agreed, stating “stereotypical degradation” has victimized Italian Americans for years. She said that, while Columbus has been a resilient symbol of Italian immigrants “shaping the landscape of this great country,” she emphasized the fight for his legacy is only part of the issue.
“Every person’s opinion is valid,” Druss said. “We cannot deny that Christopher Columbus is our symbol, but it’s not just about us, it’s about everybody else. Destroying works of art will not solve our country’s problems. We don’t have all the answers right now, but we just hope that we can come together and have smart, good conversations.”
She noted the JCCIA continues to address actively the recent vote by Chicago Public Schools to replace the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day. She and others note the nation’s calendar already includes a Native American Day in late September.
“We cannot predict the future,” she said. “We only hope the right thing is done as far as honoring part of history that are works of art for any ethnicity.”
Chris Pacelli, owner of Al’s Beef on Taylor Street, feels getting rid of Columbus is “an ongoing political agenda item of extremists and has nothing to do with the tragic murder of George Floyd. We in the 21st century cannot judge the 15th century discoverer of what became known as the new world. Certainly what happened subsequently to the native peoples was wrong by any standards in any time period of history. But to say that Columbus is responsible for all that happened is simply wrong.”
Statue does not ‘reflect values’
Tooka Zokaie is a health care professional living in the neighborhood and not affiliated with any specific opposing group, although she is an ally of the American Indian Center. Zokaie said the public health community is speaking up because racism is a public health issue and they feel symbols like the Columbus statue play a significant role.
She also is Iranian American, the daughter of Iranian refugees.
“The Italian American community is a strong, beautiful community but those taking on the monument say it does not reflect the true values of those who live there,” she said. “They want a monument that reflects the values of equity and growth. I know some people in the area who don’t feel safe walking down the street because of the color of their skin.”
Zokaie said she “would love” to engage with those who have other opinions because she also sees herself as still learning the various issues involved.
Mayor weighs in
Druss and others who advocate recognizing Columbus see opportunity in recent remarks made by Mayor Lori Lightfoot when she joined a public announcement about the Park District re-opening the lakefront. She answered a question about whether the City should consider removing Columbus statues.
“I know the issue of Columbus and Columbus Day is an issue of great discussion, but I think the way we educate our young people in particular about the history is to educate them on the full history,” she said. “We can use this moment as an opportunity to not try to erase history, but to embrace it.
“We have to recognize that the history in our country and our city is rich and diverse and do what I think the organizers of the Columbus Day Parade have done—and that is to invite people of different backgrounds of different perspectives to participate in what is really a peoples’ celebration, and we need to spur that kind of unifying and healing dialogue and not separate and divide people,” Lightfoot said. “We have too many divisive moments in this narrative that is going on right now. As leaders, we need to step up and try to unify people. We’re not always going to agree on every issue, and I know that Columbus and his legacy is a flashpoint for many. We need to use this opportunity to find our common ground as people.”
A difficult history
Finding that common ground may not be easy, according to Hayley Negrin, assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Early on, Columbus was seen as a hero, but scholars have been trying to broaden the perspective,” Negrin said, noting the issue of Columbus’s role in enslaving the indigenous population in lands he traveled to in the western hemisphere. She said people disagreed about enslavement as far back as the 1490s because some in Spain thought indigenous people who were not Christian—therefore not human—had no souls, making their enslavement acceptable.
Even then, she said, “There were those who argued against that. You can probably say that any historical figure is a mix of good and bad. If you look at Hitler, he studied art and so you could say he had that quality.”
Negrin questions Columbus being an appropriate symbol because, while Italian immigration came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Columbus made his mark 400 years earlier and therefore the two events do not mesh.
“And then there’s the point that he founded not the American mainland, but the Bahamas,” she said. “I understand that Italian Americans looked to Columbus as a symbol of fitting in. I think all of this surrounding Columbus and Native Americans and current racial and social justice issues demonstrates how hard it is fighting for a place in American culture.”
Echoing Mayor Lightfoot’s call to unify people and begin conversations leading toward healing, understanding, and better communication, a peaceful event occurred at Arrigo Park on June 19, Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”). Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when federal troops reached Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and make sure all enslaved people were freed. After President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many slaveholders went to Texas, taking slaves with them and swelling the enslaved population to 250,000.
Protesters organized by a newly created group, the George Floyd Vote organization, held the event to show support for other peaceful protests held by Black Lives Matter and to register voters.
During the Arrigo Park march, demonstrators held up banners with the phrase “I can’t breathe”—George Floyd’s words before he died.
Arrigo Park’s Christopher Columbus statue has its own rich history, according to Chicago Park District accounts.
The owners of the Columbus Memorial Building on the corner of State and Washington Streets commissioned Virginia-born Moses Jacob Ezekial to create the nine-foot-tall sculpture for their new commercial building in the 1890s. In his Rome, Italy studio, Ezekial created the figure wearing a fanciful cloak over a suit of armor.
Prior to its installation at the Columbus Memorial Building, the statue enjoyed prominent display at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The bronze figure then graced the commercial building until it was razed in 1959. The building owners asked the Municipal Art League of Chicago to find Columbus a new home; the statue was stored in a lumber yard for several years.
In the 1960s, Illinois State Rep. Victor Arrigo, a vocal advocate for the Italian American community, raised $25,000 to conserve and relocate the figure to what was then Vernon Park. Workers installed it with a new fountain in 1966. A few years later, the City renamed the park in honor of Arrigo.
The Italic Institute of America’s website is www.italic.org. For the JCCIA, log on to www.jccia.com or call (708) 450-9050. For LICNA, see www.licna.org. For Negrin, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For Zokaie, go to her Facebook and Twitter feeds.