Following the creation of a series of petitions to begin the process of removing the statue of Christopher Columbus in New Britain, a group representing Italian-American heritage is threatening legal action against the city if the statue is removed.
The Italian American One Voice Coalition sent an email to Mayor Erin Stewart’s office the week of July 20 declaring the removal of the statue discriminatory against Italian-Americans and that Columbus should be remembered exclusively for “uniting the continents” and not the numerous atrocities he committed along the way.
“This is revisionist history with regard to Columbus,” Frank Cipolla of the IAOVC said over the phone July 27. “It’s our stand that this is the whole community attempting to rewrite history and mine history, more importantly, for fresh outrage. Columbus was a 15th century man who is being judged by 21st century standards. By that metric Washington, Jefferson, all of the founding fathers, are racists because they had slaves; we don’t judge them by that.”
The mayor’s office said it was unable to comment on any issue concerning potential legal action.
Alderman Emmanuel Sanchez, of the city’s common council, said he doesn’t believe the statue sends a positive message and wants it taken down.
“Growing up half Black and half Puerto Rican, my heritage has always been an important aspect of my life and identity,” Sanchez said. “I devoted my time to ensuring that the [Borinqueneers Monument] would be built because I understand how much of an important piece of symbolism it is to the community in New Britain. While the Borinqueneers Monument represents bravery and perseverance, the Christopher Columbus statue represents colonialism, racism and hate. As such, it is necessary for our city to remove the Columbus statue and replace it with a symbol that promotes inclusivity and unity.”
The movement to remove the statue comes amid nationwide protests demanding greater racial equality in the United States after the killing of George Floyd on May 25, which reignited conversations across the country concerning the memorialization of white colonizers and slaveholders.
In order to remove the statue, a petition must be presented to the city council, which must pass the petition for it to go to the city planning commission asking for a recommendation about taking the statue down. After the planning commission gives its recommendation, the council is then able to vote on the future of the statue and does not have to side with the commission’s recommendation. The planning commission is currently not slated to convene again until September.
One petition on change.org calling for the removal of the statue has more than 1,400 signatures, and another, started by Candyce Scott, has 276 signatures. Scott doesn’t want to see a man many see as at the root of racial injustice on this continent celebrated with monuments anymore.
“It’s a racist figure,” Scott said. “I was brought up to not celebrate Columbus because he raped and murdered and slavery came afterwards. It’s not a happy story. I went to a Black private school so we didn’t have Columbus Day off. We went to school and were told the truth about our history and about what Columbus did and the history behind that. It’s not a happy message, but it’s something that needs to be talked about.”
The New Britain Racial Justice Coalition, a group working to facilitate change toward greater racial equality in the city, organized a protest to remove the statue in July and is working to have the New Britain city planning commission meet before September.
“The issue is not about taking down something that represents Italian-Americans,” NBRJC co-founder Alicia Strong said Monday. “I would be totally cool with an Italian-American representation that didn’t commit the violence Columbus committed. So I think the focus of their point that this somehow is discrimination against Italian-Americans is extremely misguided. Thinking in civil rights terms, I am significantly more concerned about what the symbol of Columbus says for groups that were targeted by him. If the coalition would like to have the statue in their private club or whatever associations they have, that’s perfectly fine.”
Frances Calzetta, from the Italian-American Historical Society of Connecticut, sees the movement against Columbus as a direct attack on Italian-Americans and Catholics with little interest in celebrating indigenous people.
“He didn’t do anything to the indigenous people – that is the biggest lie that is being thrown,” Calzetta said. “He himself, Christopher Columbus, was very, very careful with the indigenous people. There were people who came after him who did things and the indigenous people were not innocent. No legitimate historian will ever agree with what they are saying about Columbus. They do not know their scholarship, they cherry pick.”
The IAOVC cited Columbus Day was established as a sign of support and repentance toward Italian-Americans from President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 after 11 Italian-Americans were wrongly accused and killed for a crime they did not commit. Their work to preserve their legacy of Columbus comes from ethnic pride and not any hate toward Native Americans.
“We love our Native American friends,” Cipolla said. “We certainly believe they deserve a day and a statue for them, just like any ethnicity in the United States of America. What we complain about is why does it have to be our holiday? Why do you have to eliminate Columbus Day and our statues to make a point? It seems to me it’s not about Native Americans, it’s about erasing the history of Christopher Columbus.”
Laura E. Ruberto, humanities professor at Berkeley City College in Berkeley, California and scholar of Italian-American studies, has explored Italian-American’s connection to Columbus as a symbol of cultural pride and wants Italians to make efforts toward understanding Columbus’ legacy and the legacy of Italian heritage has more than one side.
“It can be true that Columbus was not the only person or the only act that shifted the world in negative ways, but at the same time it can be true that he became, very quickly, the symbol for those very negative realities,” Ruberto said. “It can be simultaneously true that Italian immigrants, 100-plus years ago, had a rough time when they first came to the U.S., but at the same time it can be true that they collectively got over that relatively quickly because they have the privilege of being considered white in ways that many other groups are not and still are not. Today, Italian-Americans have the benefit of being seen as white so they are in a dominant position where they can comfortably say we want to still celebrate Columbus and there’s no threat to that.”
New Britain is far from the only city the IAOVC contacted. The organization has made similar threats of lawsuits against many cities that have or have begun the process of removing their statues of Columbus. It is currently deciding which city it wants to bring its actual lawsuit to and Cipolla said New Haven is high on the list.
New Haven removed its Columbus statue June 24. The statue of Columbus in New London was removed June 16, Norwalk took its down June 25 and Hartford’s was removed June 29.
Middletown removed its statue on what is currently a temporary basis due to having maintenance work done in the park, but the mayor’s office has received calls about making the removal permanent. Locally, there is currently a petition on change.org that has more than 11,000 signatures to remove the bust of Columbus in Southington, which is located in front of the John Weichsel Municipal Center on North Main Street. The town had a virtual town hall July 23 to discuss the bust’s future.
“This lawsuit against New Haven will go forward,” Cipolla said. “We have case law in federal court already that defines this as a hate crime. We expect to bring it to the U.S. Supreme Court at some point and argue the case there. This has to stop.”
For the NBRJC, the goal is to continue to spread information about Columbus’ history with the intention of opening people’s eyes to the parts of his explorations that did not make the pages of most high school history textbooks.
“I think there just needs to be a community-wide conversation, not only on Columbus, but on the wider implications of what he did in terms of racial violence,” Strong said. “One of the ways this could be done is opening up conversations about indigenous people who used to live on New Britain land and how that land was eventually taken by European colonists. I think there is a desperate need to understand how the racial violence perpetrated by Christopher Columbus is very similar to racial violence and the history of racial violence here in the city.”
In addition to education, Ruberto believes community discussions are also useful tools to find new ways to celebrate heritage. The anti-Columbus movement is not an attack on Italian-Americans and sometimes the rhetoric omits that, she said.
“We need to find more localized ways to acknowledge, and if people want to, celebrate a particular group or particular culture rather than trying to find a one-size fits all model,” Ruberto said. “I don’t know if that happens unless there’s a way to bring people together on a community level and on a local level to talk and to dialogue. Right now it seems like we’re in a very heated moment where the dialogue is only happening through actions, the way people are engaging with monuments for instance, rather than through discussion.”