Christopher Columbus statue debate rises as controversial statues fall across the country

Columbus statues were defaced in Virginia and Boston.

As cities and organizations across the country continue to take down monuments, memorials and other symbols of hate, one controversial historical figure has come back into the spotlight: Christopher Columbus.

While the debate over the controversial European explorer reignited, some of his opponents have already taken bold action to his memorials.

On Tuesday night, a Columbus statue in Richmond, Virginia, was torn down by protesters, set on fire and then submerged into a lake, police said. Overnight Tuesday, another Columbus statue in Boston was decapitated, according to Boston police.

In New York City, Columbus's opponents are re-upping their calls to the city to remove the 14-foot marble statue that stands above a pedestal in Columbus Circle outside Central Park.

Melissa Iakowi:he'ne' Oakes, the executive director of the nonprofit American Indian Community House, said now is the right time to remove the 128-year-old statue, because the city did not need a monument to a figure who had a history of destroying and enslaving Indigenous people.

"I think with everything that is going on now … I don’t see why (the city) would have an argument against keeping the Christopher Columbus statue," she told ABC News.

Proponents for the statue acknowledge that Columbus' history was far from the heroic, noble explorer portrayed in some history books; however, they said the history behind the New York statue is more nuanced.

Richard Alba, a distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of CUNY, who was part of a special commission that reviewed controversial monuments in New York City, noted that the New York statue was erected mostly to honor Italian Americans persecuted during the 19th century.

"The history of that statue is different from the Confederate statues of the south, which were put up to symbolize the triumph of whites over blacks in the south," Alba told ABC News.

Experts say that the future of the New York statue and other Columbus monuments will have to have some changes to educate the public on the figure's nuances and help people understand the nation’s history.

In 2018, after the monument commission turned in its report, de Blasio ordered that new signage be placed around the statue that explained Columbus's history and the specific history behind the monument.

A spokeswoman for the mayor reiterated that the city decided not to remove the Columbus statue based on the commission's report and will work on other measures to "add context to the monument and honor Indigenous Peoples."

Oakes said for her and other Indigenous Americans, that wasn't enough. Having a tall statue of Columbus look down on the community from a 27-foot pedestal is degrading, even if there is signage describing his history, according to Oakes.

"They don’t care, and they don’t accept it," she said.

Alba, who said he supports the removal of Confederate statues across the country, said that he and other commission members listened very carefully to the statue opponents and acknowledged their concerns. In the end, the commission contended that the best move forward was to supplement Columbus' monument with new memorials of diverse historical figures.

"I think, again, our monuments have to represent our diversity, and part of that diversity is Italian Americans who came in as the most disparaged of those European groups," Alba said.

In 2018, the city removed a statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century surgeon who conducted experimental operations on female slaves, from Central Park, following the commission's report. It also has plans to erect statues of minority women figures including Rep. Shirley Chisholm and Billie Holiday, based on feedback from New Yorkers.

Saul Cornell, the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University, said statues of historical figures are problematic for educational purposes since most classical statue designs are made to glorify the figure. In Columbus's case, the statues on their own do not help with the debate about the explorer's complicated legacy to Indigenous and Italian Americans.

"We don’t have a good public record of dealing with our history thoughtfully and engagingly," Cornell told ABC News. "A statue is a very specific form of the past."

Cornell said such memorials could be instructive if they are in a setting like a museum that is filled with historical literature that paints a full picture to the public. He suggested that cities with Columbus statues bring all the stakeholders together and work out a solution.

As for the reports of vandalism of other Columbus statues, Cornell noted that this type of protest has been going on throughout history, especially when figures are revealed to be less than heroic.

He said those who own those Columbus memorials should address the concerns from the public and work quickly on a solution for all parties.

"History is a powerful wave and those who try to hold it back will be crushed," Cornell said. "The question is how do you control the wave so that it has positive results and not destructive results."