“One, two, three, pull!” the demonstrators shouted.
With one quick tug, a 14-foot-tall Carrara marble statue of Christopher Columbus fell, shattering into pieces. The crowd of more than a hundred, gathered in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood, erupted in celebration.
As the sun was setting on the anniversary of the nation’s independence from the British Empire, the statue of a man whose legacy is a reminder of colonialism fell to the bottom of the city’s Inner Harbor.
Earlier that morning, as the sun was rising, Francine Nido in Waterbury, Conn., was awoken by a phone call. “They killed your man,” the voice on the other end said.
Quickly, she made her way to city hall. She was shocked to see the 12-foot granite statue of Columbus vandalized, something she felt was an insult to her Italian heritage.
For Mahtowin Munro, an Indigenous rights activist, these symbols represent historical violence. “Celebrating Columbus is intended to erase us and ultimately is celebrating our genocide,” said Munro, who co-leads the United American Indians of New England.
Nearly a month and a half after the murder of George Floyd, the dismantling of the statues in Baltimore and Waterbury came amid a broader reckoning over whose legacy is commemorated, and why.
At least 40 monuments to Columbus have been removed since 2018, according to a Washington Post and MIT analysis of crowdsourced data and local news reports. But those removals, the majority of which happened in 2020 and 2021, represent only a fraction of the more than 130 that still remain.
Although monuments have emerged as a flash point in the debate over the country’s roots in white supremacy, they are only a drop in a much larger bucket.
More than 60 cities and counties, including our nation’s capital, pay homage to Columbus. Many bear the feminized version of his name, Columbia, which is often overlooked.
All told, there are more than 6,000 public references to Columbus across the country, according to an analysis by the MIT Data + Feminism Lab. Private businesses are not included in this count, so Columbus’s prevalence is probably even greater.
Churches, schools, municipal buildings, roads, rivers and mountains all don his name. He is memorialized in every state except Hawaii, according to available data.
Columbus as a shifting symbol
Although he never set foot in the continental United States, Columbus is the third most memorialized person in the country, behind Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, according to an audit from Monument Lab.
But it wasn’t until nearly 300 years after his death that Columbus became an American symbol. As revolutionaries plotted their independence, they needed a historical figurehead — a hero who could embody American idealism and unite the young country.
Columbus was a figure of convenience, said Heike Paul, an American studies professor at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg. Like the colonists, Columbus had also suffered under a monarchy and — most importantly — he wasn’t British.
Politicians lauded Columbus for his supposed “discovery” of America, and Columbia became an informal way to refer to the new country, popularized by poets of the time. Soon Columbus’s likeness and namesake multiplied across the American frontier.
LEFT: Columbus Fountain ahead of its dedication ceremony in Washington in 1912. (Library of Congress) RIGHT: The statue was unveiled to President William Howard Taft and a crowd of more than 150,000. The parade had floats, an automobile pageant, military squadrons and at least 50,000 marchers. (Library of Congress)
For decades, his legacy remained mostly uncontested. Biographer Washington Irving’s and historian George Bancroft’s accounts doubled down on the myth of Columbus as an American pathfinder. Both overlooked historical evidence to the contrary.
“He was the good guy of the history of colonialism,” Paul said of Bancroft’s portrayal. “There were other bad guys, but he was always kind of redeemed.”
Shortly after the Mexican-American War began, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton declared that the country’s westward expansion was “the grand idea of Columbus.” Benton, along with many others, used the notion of manifest destiny to systematically displace and kill scores of Native Americans.
“What you are teaching kids in school is that Columbus discovered, rather than invaded. That’s quite a different story,” said Munro, adding that as a mom, these lies about Columbus are distressing. “We tell our kids the truth. We tell them that Columbus was a bad guy. Why would we keep that a secret?”
Columbus’s role in American history shifted in the late 19th century as more than 18 million immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe — nearly a quarter of them from Italy. Anti-immigrant sentiment was widespread, and Italians were met with violence and racism. Characterized as “Mediterranean,” they were seen as inferior to their northern European counterparts. Half a century earlier, Irish-Catholic immigrants had endured a similar plight.
Once again, Columbus served as a figure of convenience, someone already enshrined in American culture whom Italians and Catholics could claim as their own. An elite group of immigrants used the myth of Columbus to “create a sense of entitlement and empowerment,” said Paul, which ultimately helped them assimilate into the mainstream Anglo-Saxon culture.
“They created this version of the seafaring adventurer who is Catholic like they are and who was there first,” Paul said. The feeling among Italian Americans was: “If you want to celebrate him as part of a national symbolism, then you also need to recognize us.”
Italian American and Catholic civic organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and Unico National played a key role in advancing this narrative. In 1937, the Knights of Columbus successfully lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Columbus Day a national holiday. By then, Italians were the largest immigrant group in the country.
These groups still wield significant influence and boast membership numbers in the millions. They continue to provide financial support for many of the Columbus monuments, some of which were erected as early as the mid-19th century and others as recently as 2000.
For Nido, president of the Waterbury chapter of Italian American service organization Unico, these statues now represent traits she says these organizations are justified in commemorating. “His bravery and his spirit of adventure and also his strong faith in God,” she said. “That’s what we’re proud of.”
“How shall America best present its greatness to the civilized world?” asked a pamphlet distributed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The fair, which boasted more than 27 million visitors, marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s journey and cemented him as a symbol of American identity.
This portrayal came at the expense of Black and Indigenous people. The people of color who were a part of the exhibitions, as researchers point out, were displayed in cruel and exoticized ways. Simon Pokagon, a Native American, wrote at the time about the fair’s exploitation of his people. A protest booklet, written by journalist Ida B. Wells and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, among others, also called Columbus’s legacy into question.
LEFT: Simon Pokagon, a Native American who wrote about the exploitation at the Chicago World's Fair. (The History Museum, South Bend, Ind. ) RIGHT: A protest booklet by journalist Ida B. Wells, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and others called Columbus’s legacy into question. (Library of Congress)
As homages to Columbus spread more rapidly in the 20th century, movements to counter them gained momentum. His reputation shifted as more voices spoke to what his image represented to them: colonialism, slavery and genocide.
One of the first campaigns to remove colonialist statues played out on the east side of the U.S. Capitol. For more than 100 years, Luigi Persico’s “Discovery of America” prominently adorned the Capitol steps alongside Horatio Greenough’s “Rescue.” Both depicted White men as superior and Native Americans as weaker and more vulnerable.
LEFT: Luigi Persico's “Discovery of America.” (Architect of the Capitol) RIGHT: Horatio Greenough's “Rescue.” The two statues stood on the east side of the Capitol until 1958. (Architect of the Capitol)
“The American Indian is no longer — if he ever was — the blood-thirsty savage Greenough made him out to be in this group of sculpture,” Leta Myers Smart, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, wrote in an open letter to the National Sculpture Society. “We feel we ought to rescue the Indians from these deplorable straits.”
The statues were put into temporary storage in 1958 while the East Front of the Capitol was under construction. Scholars say Smart’s letters — to legislators, art critics and the Architect of the Capitol — played a decisive role in the removal.
Calls to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day first appeared in a public forum in 1977 at a United Nations-sponsored conference. Since 1990, at least 13 states and more than 100 localities have adopted the new holiday.
LEFT: The first celebration of Indigenous Peoples' Day in Berkeley, Calif., in 1992. (Paul Sakuma/AP) RIGHT: Renee Roman Nose addresses the crowd during Indigenous Peoples' Day in Seattle in 2014. (David Ryder/Getty Images)
Munro, who founded the Massachusetts Statewide Indigenous Peoples Day campaign, says a large part of her work is educational. Much of the resistance she sees is rooted in misinformation and the dehumanization of Native Americans.
“The days that you celebrate as holidays have meaning and they send a message,” she added, “and the message that you send is important.”
There was an explosion of new monuments to Columbus in 1992, the 500th anniversary of his journey, but it was also a watershed moment in the anti-Columbus resistance, explained Paul, whose textbook on Columbus recounts much of the academic research on the topic. At that time, the focus of the movement shifted from criticism of Columbus to debunking the myth that had been built around him.
“There was really no way to make sense of this myth anymore,” she said. “It was more of a sense that we also need to tell the story of Native Americans and we need to see the bigger picture.”
LEFT: The Columbia Glacier in Valdez, Alaska, in 1975. (AP) RIGHT: The Columbia River near Troutdale, Ore. (Michael Hanson/AFP/Getty Images)
The powerful movement in the 1990s, which largely ignored the monuments, laid the foundation for today’s protests. “I see it as coming to terms with the unfinished business,” Paul said. “You need to take those symbols seriously.”
The Black Lives Matter movement, Munro said, generated awareness around symbols of white supremacy and led to more support for Indigenous issues from those outside the community.
“These statues traumatize citizens whose ancestors were enslaved in some form or another,” Spencer Compton, a White protester who captured video of the moment when the Columbus monument in Baltimore fell last year, told The Post.
The day after the statue in Baltimore fell, pieces were fished out of the Inner Harbor and taken to a private warehouse. The city said it didn’t want the statue back, and months later the city council voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Demonstrators topple a statue of Christopher Columbus and throw pieces into Baltimore's Inner Harbor on July 4, 2020. (Spencer Compton/Storyful)
But reminders of the man still linger in the city. Two Columbus monuments remain standing, and the Columbus Center for Marine Biology is just across the channel from the now-vacant pedestal.
Like many other statues that have been vandalized, the decapitated Columbus in Waterbury received a second life after Unico raised more than $8,000 for the cause. Detectives caught the young man responsible after he tried to sell the nose. Ultimately, the statue was restored and voters decided to keep it after a citywide referendum.
LEFT: Members of the Minnesota State Patrol guard a toppled statue of Columbus on June 10, 2020. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images) RIGHT: A 76-foot statue of Columbus in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The two statues in Waterbury and Baltimore were erected the same year and toppled on the same day. Together, they highlight the messy process of confronting the nation’s history.
“Back then, they came, they conquered, and they took over. You can’t change history,” said Nido, who saw the Waterbury referendum as a victory. “I don’t understand how a statue or a man can make you feel marginalized.”
For Munro, continuing to celebrate Columbus sidelines Indigenous voices. “Colonization is not something that happened in 1620 or 1492,” she said. “It’s an ongoing thing. It’s still happening. I think it’s really important for people to consider what should be there for public art and who should be represented.”
Explore the data
The data represented below is based on an analysis by The Post and the MIT Data + Feminism Lab. It is based on crowdsourced data, local news reports and U.S. Board on Geographic Names data. The map displays public places — not private businesses — with “Columbus” or “Columbia” in the name that are not known to be named after someone else.