The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Columbus Day holiday is under attack, and so are statues honoring the famed explorer

Young swimmers play in the Columbus memorial fountain outside of Washington’s Union Station. It is one of hundreds of memorials to the explorer. (Library of Congress)

While millions of Americans will get Monday off in honor of Christopher Columbus, the holiday has been under attack for decades by Native American activists, who see the famed 15th-century explorer as a killer and slave trader rather than a hero.

A growing number of cities, most recently Austin and Los Angeles, have rebranded the second Monday in October as “Indigenous People Day.” Now Columbus statues, too, are increasingly under fire, caught up in the same antipathy that is toppling Confederate memorials in town squares and public spaces around the country.

Police in New York are guarding the 76-foot-tall likeness of Columbus in Columbus Circle after city officials said the sculpture would be part of a 90-day review of “all symbols of hate on city property.”

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Defenders of the memorials have promised “a fight like never before” against any move to take Columbus down. “It is a slap in the face to the Italian-American community, and we are not going to tolerate it,” John Fratta, chair of the New York State Commission for Social Justice, told the New York Post.

At least three Columbus statues in New York have been vandalized in recent weeks, including one in Central Park that had its hands painted red and graffiti scrawled across its pedestal. And in Baltimore, the purported first-ever monument to the explorer, erected in 1792,  was attacked with a sledgehammer in August.

The vandals videotaped the attack, blaming Columbus for launching “a centuries-old wave of terrorism, murder, genocide, rape, slavery, ecological degradation and capitalist exploitation of labor in the Americas.”

Historians said it was inevitable that Columbus and the Confederacy would become entwined in the same emotional dispute over public memorials.

“They are two elements of America that have been romanticized and ingrained in our cultures over the years,” said William Fowler, a longtime professor of American history at Northeastern University in Boston. “Over time, the facts may not change but the way we interpret them certainly has.”

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Columbus’s climb up onto the pedestal began 300 years after his famed journey across the Atlantic in 1492. After gaining independence, the young republic was searching for symbols that set its identity apart from Europe’s. Columbus fit the bill, as did the Pilgrims’ arrival in New England.

The first reported Columbus Day celebration was held in New York in October 1792 to mark the tricentennial of his voyage. That same year, a French diplomat in Baltimore erected a 44-foot stucco obelisk creating what some historians believe was the first Columbus memorial in the Americas, if not the world.

His grip on the public imagination grew after Washington Irving penned a biography of Columbus in 1828.  And an increasing number of Catholic immigrants latched onto his story as an apt symbol of their own arrival. Near the time of the Columbus quadricentennial in 1892, the Columbian Exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago was a sensation. Memorials began going up around the country, including a huge fountain sculpture in front of Washington’s Union Station.

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization founded in 1882, also championed homages to its namesake, and in 1937 it successfully lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Columbus Day a federal holiday.

In New York, in particular, with a booming concentration of Italian immigrants, the day grew into a major annual event and remains a touchstone for Italian Americans.

This year’s parade down Fifth Avenue will feature more than 35,000 marchers and more than 100 floats and bands. It will be led by Barnes & Noble Chairman Leonard Riggio, while past grand marshals have included Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Joe Di Maggio and Susan Lucci.

Not much objection was raised during the years that Columbus’s status grew, Fowler said. Those who would note the other side of his “discovery” story — which included enslavement of native Caribbean people and widespread death from Old World diseases — didn’t have many platforms to protest.

“The facts were always there about the horrors his arrival represented for so many, but they didn’t really begin to resonate until the civil rights movement,” Fowler said.

Native Americans, in particular, began to push back against the Columbus mythology. In 1989, American Indian Movement protesters poured buckets of fake blood on Denver’s Columbus statue. A major celebration planned to mark the 500th anniversary of the New World landing never generated the interest that planners had hoped for, Fowler said.

“People were already rethinking a lot of this,” he said. “It never really got the enthusiasm.”

Today, for many, apathy has been replaced by an anger that bodes for a long and contentious reconsideration of Columbus, his statues and his day.

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