By Eva Hofmann
Amid a national battle over memorials honoring controversial historical figures, on July 24 Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered workers to remove the statues of Christopher Columbus from Arrigo and Grant Parks overnight. In her statement, Lightfoot said that she had both statues “temporarily removed…until further notice” due to safety concerns.
“This step is about an effort to protect public safety and to preserve a safe space for an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols,” Lightfoot said. “In addition, our public safety resources must be concentrated where they are most needed throughout the city, and particularly in our South and West Side communities.”
Lightfoot previously had opposed taking down statues on the grounds that it would erase history.
“There is nothing more important than the safety of all Chicagoans and our Chicago Police officers who work so hard to protect our rights and communities,” said Sergio Giangrande, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans.
Nonetheless, “Our community is hurt,” Giangrande continued. “We are not okay with these statues being taken down, but we stand by the City’s decision to do so in the interest of public safety.
“Mayor lightfoot has told us that this is not over,” he concluded. “We look forward to being able to have the conversation about something that means so much to Italian Americans at a time free of violence.”
The U.S. long has celebrated Columbus as the man who “discovered” America, which made him a heroic symbol among some Italian Americans. Critics have noted Columbus’s actions led to genocide and other crimes, including rape, torture, and enslavement, against indigenous peoples.
The most notable of those critics, historian Howard Zinn, wrote A People’s History of the United States, which has sold more than 2.6 million copies. Author Mary Grabar endeavors to discredit Zinn’s ideas in her book Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History that Turned a Generation Against America. She cites what she calls tragic examples of the effects of Zinn’s writings and local school boards’ lack of research on him. Different historians have taken different positions on the question.
According to the Italian American Human Relations Foundation of Chicago (IAHRF), many school districts and institutions of higher learning in the United States are using Zinn’s writings as a basis for education about Columbus.
Currently, IAHRF is working to create its own curriculum on Columbus. “While Italian Americans throughout the United States choose to celebrate their heritage on Columbus Day, a day that the United States government made a legal holiday, it is important to remember the historical significance of his voyages,” said the group’s president, Louis H. Rago.
“Time magazine wrote that the invention of the printing press and Columbus’s landing in the New World were the two most important events of the millennium,” Rago said. “His discovery introduced farming, bronze and steel technology to a new people. The year 1492 marked the start of the Columbian Exchange, a widespread transfer of animals, plants, culture, and human populations, never before seen in earth’s history.
“If you mourn the events of 1492, you are saying that the Americas should have been left unopened to any outside exploration,” added Rago. “Or are you suggesting that another explorer would have done things better?”
Hayley Negrin, assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that Columbus’s role in enslaving the indigenous population in land he traveled to in the western hemisphere is an issue. Negrin also questions Columbus being an appropriate symbol for Italian-Americans, 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.
Italian American community defense
In the 1960s, Illinois State Representative Victor Arrigo raised $25,000 to conserve and relocate the Columbus statue to what was then Vernon Park. At the time, the figure sat in a lumber yard, after having enjoyed prominence at the Columbus Memorial Building on State Street and, before that, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. A few years later, the City renamed the park to honor Arrigo.
Just days before the City removed the Columbus statues, Italian-American leaders and supporters from the neighborhood held a press conference in Arrigo Park to defend the memorial.
“We, as Italian Americans, came to this country and fought hard to get what we got,” said activist Frank Coconate. “Columbus is a symbol of our hard work. You may disagree with us. You may not like him. Your history is different from our history. Now if you don’t like it, sit down with us….let’s talk and we’ll show you the proper way of getting your message across.”
Activist Carlo Vaniglia organized the event. “It’s so hard to fight something when the opposition is lying,” said Vaniglia. “If he hadn’t come, someone else would have come. Western civilization is due to that man. Or do people think it would still be a wilderness?”
A spokesperson for the Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association (LICNA) said the group was working with local residents to discuss options for keeping the statue and creating educational, engaging, welcoming spaces in Arrigo Park and the piazza where the statue stood.
“We were asked by Alderman [Jason] Ervin to work together to come up with a unified solution that would keep the Columbus statue in Arrigo Park,” said the spokesperson. LICNA expressed willingness to work with the residents. On July 23, one day before workers took the statue down, the organization received notice from residents with whom it had been working that those residents no longer were “working with us on a solution and that their position of the day was the statue must come down.” LICNA said it will continue “working with the community on developments to improve the neighborhood and welcome others to be part of a collaborative, transparent effort.”
Alderman Ervin did not respond to requests for comment.
Sigcho-Lopez weighs in
According to 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, removing the Columbus statue was a step in the right direction. “We wish this was done sooner,” he said. “But what is missing from the conversation is what is about to happen next. I hear from a lot of young people who are concerned about the issue of white supremacy and genocide. Nobody is condemning Italian American heritage. But it’s important to know about the history.”
Alderman Sigcho-Lopez said he has a meeting scheduled with LICNA to discuss ways to honor the Italian American legacy.
The mayor’s office stated the City soon would announce “a formal process to assess each of the monuments, memorials, and murals across Chicago’s communities, and develop a framework for creating a public dialogue to determine how we elevate our city’s history and diversity.”
For additional information, contact the mayor’s office at (312) 744-3300 or go to www.chicago.gov. For information on the Italian American Human Relations Foundation of Chicago, go to www.iahrf.com. To contact the Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association go to www.licna.org. To reach Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, go to www.25thward.org.