Now, some activists in Ohio’s capital city of Columbus are confident that they can bring down another honor to the Italian explorer, one that would be harder to remove — the city’s name.
“Once I started to learn, as a young adult, about what he really stood for and the history of genocide against indigenous people in the Americas, it just felt like, ‘Wow, this is not a name I can feel proud of,' ” said Seth Josephson, a supporter of changing the state capital’s name. “I love the place of Columbus, Ohio, where I’ve lived my whole life … but I want to feel proud of the name.”
Across the country, tributes to Christopher Columbus, whose 15th-century expeditions launched the era of European colonization of the Americas, are meeting undignified ends. Last month, protesters in St. Paul pulled down a Columbus statue that had stood in front of the state capitol for nearly 90 years. Boston demonstrators beheaded their Columbus statue, which stood in a park on the city’s North End, and the city removed its remains the next day.
And it’s not just statues. A couple of GOP senators have proposed getting rid of the Columbus holiday to make Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery, a federal holiday instead.
In Columbus, Ohio, the mountainous statue in front of the city hall — a gift from his birthplace of Genoa, Italy, in 1955 — was removed early last Wednesday morning. But efforts to change the city’s name have persisted for decades.
Josephson said the cause has existed since at least the late 1990s, but he believes the conversation is finally progressing, with the politically conscious city enmeshed in protests for police restructuring and racial justice.
“It’s certainly not something that’s new,” said Josephson, 40, of the renaming campaign. “What’s new is the sense that that actually could happen.”
The nationwide demonstrations that followed the Memorial Day death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police have largely focused on police violence. But the movement also has triggered the removal of Confederate monuments and other tributes to historically oppressive figures.
Christopher Columbus has been a key target. His name has been adopted by numerous U.S. towns, counties and villages, including the nation’s capital: the District of Columbia.
While lionized by many as the man who “discovered” America, others remember him for the genocide and the violent displacement of indigenous people that followed his arrival. That makes the explorer a natural target in the Black Lives Matter protests, Josephson said.
“Symbols — like the name of the city, the statues, the seal of the city, all those things — even though they don’t materially affect people directly, they have a cumulative effect because they reinforce this narrative that says that some people’s lives don’t matter,” Josephson said.
The statue’s removal from the city hall came nearly two weeks after Mayor Andrew Ginther (D) announced that it would be placed in storage.
“For many people in our community, the statue represents patriarchy, oppression and divisiveness. That does not represent our great city, and we will no longer live in the shadow of our ugly past,” Ginther said in a news release on June 18. “Now is the right time to replace this statue with artwork that demonstrates our enduring fight to end racism and celebrate the themes of diversity and inclusion.”
But Ginther is not considering changing the city’s name, spokeswoman Robin Davis said. Neither the city’s charter nor its laws provide a process for changing the name, according to the city attorney’s office, but state law says a person can petition the court for a hearing on the matter if they show three-quarters of the city’s residents desire the name change.
Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce said that a name change is worthy of conversation, but he expects it would be challenging given the name has been in place for more than two centuries.
The discussion, he said, should start with recognition of the true history behind the name.
“Unfortunately, the way the story has been told over time in history, we glorify Christopher Columbus’s arrival here, and quite frankly, there was really not a lot of glory to it,” Boyce said.
He said the city has become “a more diverse, more inclusive place” during his lifetime, an image at odds with Christopher Columbus’s legacy.
“The history of how he did those things and what he did to the people that he discovered is not something that I think the name of the city should reflect,” he said.
Supporters of the name change are using online petitions and social media to spread the word about their cause. A petition to adopt the name Flavortown, in homage to native son and restaurateur Guy Fieri, gained popularity on social platforms with more than 120,000 signees. It also caught the attention of media outlets, including Fox News, where commentators questioned whether the protesters’ goals were still on social and racial justice.
“It’s gone from a very specific thing where we talked about use of force by police, police brutality, needing police reform to now obviously ripping down statues and talking about renaming towns,” said Tom Bevan, president of RealClearPolitics. “I’m not sure this is helping achieve any of the goals.”
Tyler Woodbridge, who created the petition, released a letter saying he would be taking a step back from his involvement and apologizing for taking away any attention from the Black Lives Matter movement. He also apologized to black and indigenous communities, emphasizing a name change movement should be led by those most affected by Columbus’s legacy.
“As a white male, I don’t have a say in this besides my rejection of Columbus and the misguided hero-worship thereof,” Woodbridge wrote. “My hope was that leading the charge with an audacious and celebrity-attached name such as Flavortown would call attention to the cause and lead the way for perhaps other names as well. I hope the viral meme helped achieve this.”
Columbus activist Lisa Factora-Borchers said she believes a name change and taking down monuments that celebrate oppression is a critical step, but who leads the efforts for change is important to her.
“I think renaming the city is part of many public policies that have to be looked at. And those changes need to be led by black and brown communities of Columbus,” Factora-Borchers, 41, said.
She has been sharing the #RenameColumbus hashtag campaign on her social media platforms.
“With the political climate that we’re in, I think it’s only going to keep gaining momentum,” she said.
But some activists fear the effort to change the city’s name could overshadow the central goals of the Black Lives Matter protests, including ending police violence. Scott Woods, 49, a writer and nonprofit arts organizer, said he’s not against a name change, but he doesn’t consider it “remotely a priority.”
“The statues weren’t even on the BLM list, so a name change is energy better spent elsewhere,” Woods said in a direct message on Facebook.
Some have opposed the statue removal and potential city name change. The Columbus Piave Club, an Italian American social group, posted pictures of the statue removal on its Facebook page Wednesday and demanded that the plaque it had purchased for the mantle be returned, along with the $200 the club paid to lay a wreath at the statue’s feet on Columbus Day each year.
The club played an instrumental role in facilitating the Columbus statue as a gift from Genoa, Italy, in 1955. Since the statue removal, the club has been in contact with Genoa and the city wants the Columbus statue back, said club spokesman Joseph Contino.
Contino said pop culture has misrepresented the explorer for years.
“He wasn’t a genocidal murderer. He was not a slave trader, by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “There’s a lot of cut and paste from all sorts of Spanish or conquistador history that is kind of roped around his neck, so to speak.”
The club started a petition titled “Cancel Columbus Name Change” that has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.
The native community largely supports the name change movement, but believes there are more pressing matters affecting the community. For Jett Hannan, president of the Native American and Indigenous Peoples Cohort at Ohio State University, changing the city’s name would be laudable. But while he appreciates sentiments that Christopher Columbus shouldn’t be honored, he believes attention should be on helping Native American tribes in more tangible ways.
“Renaming a state capitol, just in my personal perspective, somewhat goes on the back burner compared to poverty and lack of education, low access to health care,” said Hannan, a member of the Secwepemc Nation of British Columbia, Canada. “These are things that are really impacting our community right now, especially because of covid-19.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Minnesota city where a Columbus statue was removed. It was in St. Paul.