Two statues of Christopher Columbus in Chicago parks were removed Friday following demonstrations and attempts to pull down one of the monuments.
The office of Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot announced July 24 that the city had “temporarily removed the Christopher Columbus statues in Grant Park and Arrigo Park until further notice. This action was taken after consultation with various stakeholders. It comes in response to demonstrations that became unsafe for both protesters and police, as well as efforts by individuals to independently pull the Grant Park statue down in an extremely dangerous manner.”
It said the move “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. 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.”
The city will be assessing each of its “monuments, memorials, and murals” and will “develop a framework for creating a public dialogue to determine how we elevate our city’s history and diversity.”
The mayor's office emphasized that “this is not about a single statue or mural, but how we create a platform to channel our city’s dynamic civic energy to collaboratively, purposefully and peacefully reflect our values as Chicagoans and uplift the stories of all of our diverse city’s residents, particularly when it comes to the permanent memorialization of our shared heritage.”
The statues were removed in the early morning, between 3:00 and 5:30 am, the AP reported.
Both the statues had been vandalized recently, protesters had violently clashed with police in Grant Park.
There has been a spate of vandal attacks on statues of historic figures and a wave of critical commentary on American monuments. Vandals particularly targeted statues of Confederate leaders, but also moved against statues of Ulysses S. Grant and St. Junipero Serra. Catholic churches and statues have also come under attack.
The protests were originally launched in response to the death of Minnesotan George Floyd, a black man, while he was being detained by Minneapolis police
Columbus has long been an American Catholic and Italian-American folk hero. They have seen his pioneering voyage from Europe as a way of validating their presence in a sometimes hostile majority-Protestant country and as the means by which Christianity reached the New World.
He was depicted as a symbol of exploration and discovery, critical for launching the encounter between Europe and the Americas. He was also a symbol of immigrants, and honors for Columbus drew opposition from nativist and anti-Catholic groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
While Columbus never set foot in North America, the District of Columbia bears his name and he is the namesake of the Knights of Columbus, now the largest Catholic men's fraternal organization in the world.
In recent decades, Columbus has drawn critical coverage. Some blame him for the launch of the transatlantic slave trade, and fault him for the enslavement and other mistreatment of some Native Americans under his command. Some critics blame him for the subsequent sufferings of Native Americans under Spanish rule, or under the rule of European colonists generally.
A statue of Columbus in Philadelphia's Marconi Plaza has also been targeted for removal by activists. That monument has been surrounded by a makeshift wooden box since June to protect it from being defaced.
In June a Columbus statue in Boston's historically Italian North End was beheaded, and one in St. Paul was toppled.
The Worcester city council voted July 21 to shelve a proposal that would have ordered the removal of a Columbus statue located outside the city's Union Station, citing the need to respect the local Italian community.
And in June, a Catholic high school in Wisconsin said it not change its name from “Columbus Catholic High School” after a petition from alumni and other members of the community requested the change. The school was named for the Knights of Columbus, who funded its construction.
Carol Delaney, an emerita professor of anthropology at Stanford University and author of "Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem," told CNA in 2017 that a popular current narrative around Columbus is tarred by bad history.
“They’re blaming Columbus for the things he didn’t do. It was mostly the people who came after, the settlers,” Delaney said. “He’s been terribly maligned.”
She said Columbus initially had a favorable impression of many of the Native Americans he met and instructed the men under his command not to abuse them but to trade with them; he also punished some of his own men who committed crimes against the natives.
Delaney acknowledged that some Native Americans were sent to Spain as slaves or conscripted into hard labor at the time Columbus had responsibility for the region, but she attributed this mistreatment to his substitutes acting in his absence.
The explorer had good relations with a Native American leader on Hispaniola. There, a Taino chief named Guacanagari aided Columbus after the wreck of his main ship the Santa Maria. Columbus adopted one of his sons, who took the name of Columbus’ natural son, Diego, and accompanied Columbus on his final three voyages.
The Knights of Columbus have said that their namesake “has frequently been falsely blamed for the actions of those who came after him and is the victim of horrific slanders concerning his conduct.”
Leo XIII wrote an encyclical marking the Columban quadricentennial in 1892, reflecting on Columbus’ desire to spread the faith. In Quarto abeunte saeculo, the pope wrote that Columbus “resolved to go before and prepare the ways for the Gospel” by his exploration.
“When [Columbus] learned from the lessons of astronomy and the record of the ancients, that there were great tracts of land lying towards the West … he saw in spirit a mighty multitude, cloaked in miserable darkness, given over to evil rites, and the superstitious worship of vain gods. Miserable it is to live in a barbarous state and with savage manners: but more miserable to lack the knowledge of that which is highest, and to dwell in ignorance of the one true God. Considering these things, therefore, in his mind, he sought first of all to extend the Christian name and the benefits of Christian charity to the West,” Leo declared.
Regarding the recent controversy over Columbus, Delaney told CNA that Columbus is being blamed “for things he did not do,” including the history of slavery in the U.S.