SOUTHINGTON – The Town Council voted along party lines Monday night to preserve the Christopher Columbus statue at the John Weichsel Municipal Center, with Republicans voting in favor of keeping it and Democrats voting for its removal.
Council members voting in favor of saving the statue were Paul Chaplinsky, Mike Del Santo, William Dziedzic, Tom Lombardi, Jim Morelli and Council Chair Victoria Triano. Councilors who called for the removal of the statue were Val DePaolo, Chris Poulos, and Chris Palmieri.
Prior to the vote, Triano said that the council had received three petitions in favor of keeping the statue and one calling for its removal. The town’s Italian-American clubs - Sons of Italy, Sorelle D’Italia in America, Southington Unico - and the Knights of Columbus spearheaded the effort to save it.
Traino said that among the three petitions calling for keeping the statue, one had 676 signatures, another had 333 and the third had 69. In total, there were 1,048 town residents verified who were in favor of keeping the statue.
The petition calling for the statue’s removal, Triano said, had “thousands of names from all around the world.” However, when it was cut down to just town residents, there were only 120 names and those could not be verified.
“All of those names had no addresses or phone numbers,” said Triano. “We put out an offer to the author of that petition to meet with us to validate those names; the offer is out there.”
A motion was made to establish a committee to discuss the future of the statue. That motion was defeated.
“This is such a divisive topic and this would be a way to ensure that the people impacted directly have a voice in a more calm and collaborative format,” said Palmieri, who favored creating a committee. “It will give us a chance to sit at the table and listen to each other. There is clearly a divide between people who want to keep it and people who want to remove it.”
Triano, who voted against establishing the committee, said that the council owes it to residents on both sides to make a decision and not prolong the issue.
DePaolo, who made a motion to remove the statue, said that there is a movement in the country that is “long overdue” toward “justice and equality to all people.”
“I’ve heard many residents say that they don’t feel included or that their voices are making a difference,” she said. “To many in our community, that statue represents racism, injustice and brutality. It sends a message that our town does not truly embrace and care about all residents. The arguments about prejudice I found more compelling and they outweigh any benefit for it if it remains.”
Triano said that the council has heard a lot of different opinions about the statue. She said it does not take away from the town’s statement of commitment to oppose racism following the death of George Floyd.
“We have to look at all of our residents,” she said. “There is passion on both sides but we want to assure our residents that their voice does matter. Let’s deal with this now and come together to make Southington better.”
The statue was erected in 2017 by the late Dick Fortunato with the help of organizations such as the Sons of Italy, Sorelle D’Italia in America, Southington Unico, the Knights of Columbus and the Joe & Kay Calvanese Foundation. The statue’s establishment coincided with the 525th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492.
The council unanimously voted to approve of it being erected at the time. The statue is under constant video surveillance, and when it was erected it was stated by the council that anyone who damaged it would be made to pay to repair it.
Several town leaders spoke about the significance of Columbus that day and a handful of protesters picketed the unveiling.
Fortunato’s statement that day said the monument “honors the town’s driving spirit and patriotic pride” as well as Columbus. He spoke of how Columbus’ discovery led to the settlement of Connecticut’s “Apple Valley” in the 1700s and how Southington had grown into a “compassionate and caring community.”
During public comment, three residents called upon the Town Council to remove the statue.
Christina Volpe called for establishing another way to commemorate the town’s immigrant ancestors, possibly using “Legacy Bricks” along the town’s walking trail. She said she wanted something “more meaningful.”
“I don’t feel that the statue is there for anything other than personal ego or vanity at this point,” she said.
Joan Hurley called Columbus the “founding father of systemic racism” and called for the statue’s removal. She said that it was “disingenuous” to claim that the statue merely represents Italian pride. She said Columbus was an “oppressor” and did not deserve to be honored in a public space. She said that the statue preserves a false version of history.
Hurley also pointed out that, after the killing of George Floyd, the council issued a statement condemning racism.
“Children of color said during the meetings of the Coalition for Social Justice that they felt silenced and excluded in Southington,” she said. “Are your words symbolic or will you represent anti-racism in practice?”
Resident Stephanie Mitchell agreed with Hurley’s statements that the statue “reflects feelings of exclusion in the community by people of color.”
The decision follows a public hearing which was attended by more than 100 residents. Those who spoke in favor of keeping the statue at that time argued for “preserving history” and defended the character of Columbus.
Dillon Coleman said those who spoke of Columbus’ atrocities represented a “massive failing” of the education system. Columbus was the “greatest navigator of his day” and played the “single most important role” in the founding of America, Coleman said.
Columbus was slandered by political rivals and spent his life defending himself from these “falsehoods,” Coleman said. The brutal actions attributed to Columbus were committed by people who came after him and people around him whom he had no control over, he said.
Coleman said it was wrong to look at a man of the 1400s through a lens of 21st century values.
Brian Covino said those pushing for the removal of the statue are not doing so because of Columbus – but rather to “destroy all history before an arbitrary date.”
“A few years ago we were told it was only the confederate statues,” he said. “Now they are targeting anyone who is tangentially related to slavery. Who is next? Who is to say that in 20 years people decide to remove John Weichsel’s name from the municipal center.”
Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.