In yesterday’s Boston Globe Magazine, I read an article proposing a new solution for Christopher Columbus Park in the North End after a despicable excuse for a human being decapitated the statue of the park’s namesake.
Megan Montgomery suggested that a statue of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti be created to replace the statue of Christopher Columbus. Sacco and Vanzetti were the two Italian-American immigrants convicted in 1921 of killing a paymaster and a guard and stealing $15,000 from the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, MA. They were executed in 1927. Many people believed at the time and still believe today that Sacco and Vanzetti were wrongfully convicted. Protests and riots took place, not unlike what has happened in response to the death of George Floyd. Montgomery argues that building a Sacco and Vanzetti statue would raise awareness of wrongful convictions and that their story is relevant to the issues of prejudice and classism facing America today. She also points out that Sacco, a shoemaker, and Vanzetti, a fish peddler, became friends after getting involved with workers’ rights and anti-World War I activism. She calls them heroes who fought for the rights of everyday people.
This is all true, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting up a Sacco and Vanzetti statue. But this should be in addition to the Columbus statue, not instead of it.
“Columbus symbolizes violence and unchecked power, and doesn’t deserve a statue any more than he deserves a federal holiday,” Montgomery writes. She claims that the Columbus statue symbolizes “historical oppression” and calls on Boston’s Italian-American community to “memorialize new heroes.” She points out the usual anti-Columbus arguments, which go essentially as follows:
- Columbus wasn’t really Italian-American, as Italy didn’t exist in 1492 (he was from Genoa, which is part of modern-day Italy).
- Columbus didn’t exactly discover the Americas, because they were already inhabited.
- Columbus and his supporters colonized the lands that they found, enslaved the native people, and caused many deaths.
Obviously, Christopher Columbus was not perfect. His story and deeds involved violence, and he and his supporters were not exactly respectful towards the native people that they encountered. But that does not mean that he symbolizes violence, unchecked power, or oppression. Nor does it mean that he deserves to have his statue decapitated and his holiday canceled. Every person is a mix of various qualities, some good and some bad. To some people, violent colonization is the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the name Columbus. To others, Columbus is fondly memorialized as a skilled navigator, charismatic leader, brave explorer, and the first Italian-American (as a native of Genoa, he comes close enough). After all, even though the so-called New World wasn’t new to all the people who had been living there for millennia, it is hard to deny that Columbus’s achievements required intelligence, determination, courage, and independence of thought.
If I had to choose who is more worthy of a statue, Columbus or Sacco and Vanzetti, I would choose Columbus. But we shouldn’t have to choose. There’s nothing wrong with having both. People are always going to have different opinions on the relative merits of various historical figures. The same individual can symbolize different things depending on who you ask. People have different ideas of right and wrong, weigh personal qualities differently, and simply are partial to different historical figures. An existing statue cannot be removed just because some people decide that the historical figure is not worthy of being honored. This demonstrates a complete disregard for the people who admire the historical figure and love the statue. Adding more statues to increase diversity and to include under-represented groups enriches our world. Taking down statues – let alone viciously beheading them – only impoverishes it.