The statue of Christopher Columbus outside of Worcester's Union Station will remain, the city council decided Tuesday, citing the need to respect the local Italian community despite a spate of vandal attacks on statutes of historic figures and a wave of critical commentary on American monuments.
The Worcester City Council voted 8-2 on July 21 to shelve a proposal that would have ordered the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue and its replacement with a different statue or memorial to honor the Italian community.
Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson, who claims Italian ancestry, moved to shelve the proposal. She cited the recent razing of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and the closing of the cultural center there, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports.
“As someone who is Italian, that statue does represent our heritage,” said Mero-Carlson. “The Italian community has been through hell and back the last couple of years having lost their church and cultural center.”
“We don’t get the right to tell the Italian community what they should think about a statue,” she said. “Italians are proud people. We don’t get the right to tell them what to do with their statue; it should be up to the Italian community to decide. We get to make those decisions on who we are.”
The statue was donated to the city by Italian-American attorney Nunziato Fursaro in memory of his wife and erected in 1978.
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.
Columbus was long 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.
Councilor Sarai Rivera had introduced the failed proposal. She said the statue should be removed because of atrocities and devastation caused for indigenous people in the Caribbean, Central America, and North America.
Rivera identifies as Afro Taina and claims descent from the Taino indigenous people of Puerto Rico. She said she never participated in Worcester's annual Columbus Day Parade.
“I could never go to celebrate someone who committed genocide on my ancestors,” she said, according to the Worcester Gazette & Telegram.
“Columbus is not about heritage. Columbus is about hate,” Rivera said to the council meeting, according to the Boston Globe. “And when you think about the amazing contributions the Italian community has done, even within our own community ... that’s who we should be honoring. That’s who we should be talking about.”
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. That son took the name of Columbus’ natural son, Diego, and accompanied Columbus on his final three voyages
In June the Worcester Columbus statue was vandalized with red paint, with the word “genocide” written on it. A Columbus statue in Boston's historically Italian North End was beheaded.
This followed protests originally launched in response to the death of Minnesotan George Floyd, a black man, while he was being detained by Minneapolis police. Violence and vandalism, rejected by protest organizers, have caused massive damage to American cities.
Vandals particularly targeted statues of Confederate leaders, but also moved against statues of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, and Spanish missionary St. Junípero Serra, a major figure of early Californian history. Catholic churches and statues have also come under attack.
In Worcester the Columbus statue's location at Union Station is owned and operated by the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, but the statue itself belongs to the city.
Councilor Kathleen M. Toomey also spoke against removing the statue.
“I feel very strongly that we need to respect each other and not tear each other down,” she said. “And when you start taking away other peoples’ symbols without having conversation, without trying to understand what things mean, I think that’s a problem.”
The proposal cannot be brought again for 90 days unless the city council agrees to to reconsider it.
The Italian American Alliance welcomed the shelving of the proposal, and voiced hope the city would “take special care to protect the statue against vandals.”
Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty recused himself from voting.