Amid weeks of nationwide demonstrations for racial justice, public statues of Christopher Columbus — from D.C. to California — have come under heightened scrutiny, with statues being vandalized and ripped down by those who say the man's memory isn't something to celebrate. Here in Boston, a statue of the explorer in the North End was decapitated this month, then taken down and put in storage.
That statue is a relatively recent addition to the city's landscape. Far older is the challenge of reckoning with Columbus’ legacy of slavery, torture and killing of Native Americans.
The notion of Columbus as a seminal figure in the American story is as old as the American story. Even the name of the nation’s capital — the District of Columbia — is partially derived from Columbus’ name. Columbus Avenue, named for the explorer, was laid out here in Boston in 1860. And by the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ famed Atlantic journey in 1892, he was being embraced as one of their own by an ascendant group in America: Catholic immigrants.
Anthony Sammarco, who teaches history at Boston University and is a specialist on Boston history, said that Christopher Columbus was one of many people that different ethnic groups claimed as "their candidate ... that settled the new world."
Indeed an Irish Catholic priest founded the Knights of Columbus — a Catholic fraternal order — in Connecticut in 1882. In fact, the Knights of Columbus gifted a a different statue of Columbus in 1892 that stood in front of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End until the 1920s.
Sammarco said the Italian-born Columbus became an especially important figure for Italian immigrants, who came to this area in increasing numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the time Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park opened in 1976, the North End had largely become a uniquely Italian-American enclave. The statue was added in 1979.
"It was something that was sponsored by a huge number of organizations," he said. "The Knights of Columbus, the Donte Allagheri Society and the Order of the Sons of Italy in America along with many others — all under the auspices of ... Aurthur Stivaletta."
Sammarco said Stivaletta was a brilliant community organizer with political connections. He was also controversial. Pro Vietnam War and anti-communist, he espoused a fiery brand of American patriotism that earned him nicknames like the "modern Paul Revere," and “Mr. Wake Up America.” Sammarco said the statue was — for Stivaletta and for many who supported its creation — the culmination of their families’ own long journeys.
"A place that actually created a sense of immigrants finally assimilating into the city of Boston," he said.
To bring his dream of the Columbus statue to fruition, Stivaletta enlisted Andrew Mazzola, a first-generation American and second-generation stone worker in Norwood.
"He’s an Italian son from an Italian immigrant," said Andrew Mazzola's son A.J. Mazzola, who today owns Norwood Monumental Works, a company his grandfather started. "He’s going, 'Wow, Christopher Columbus Statue? I’m in.'"
Mazzola said his father worked on the statue’s design. It was carved out of a single block of marble in Carrara, Italy. His father also hand carved the plinth on which it stands, and hand etched the names of all of the people who donated to its creation.
"This statue got so much recognition that we had to put in granite pillars and start lettering the granite pillars becasue so many people were throwing money at it," said Mazzola. "So if that doesn't tell you that this was a big deal."
Mazzola himself has helped his now deceased father repair the statue, a frequent target of vandals over the years. As for the current controversy?
"If him being on the waterfront on a pedestal like this is symbolic to slavery and everything else, and it affects you? Yeah. Take it down," he said.
Mazzola is all for protests, lobbying or a vote to remove it, but as for it being damaged as a means to that end?
"This, is in my estimation the wrong way," he said. "But I get it. I just wish they had done it a different way because it affects me personally."
It’s just as personal for Mahtowin Munro.
"He’s absolutely the wrong guy to be celebrating," said Munro, the co-leader of United American Indians of New England and lead organizer of Indigenous Peoples Day MA, groups that have long fought to replace Columbus Day in Massachusetts with Indigenous Peoples Day, and remove the statue.
"It sends a clear message that that park only belongs to certain people and only certain people are supposed to be there," she said. "And it should be a place that everybody in Boston feels comfortable going to."
Columbus may be integral to the American story and the idea of a nation transformed by immigration. But Munro points out that he’s also the start of a story that saw the death of millions of Native Americans and millions of black people enslaved.
"People are equating what Italians or other white ethnicities dealt with as immigrants here with what Indigenous people have experienced, and you can’t equate that," she said.
Munro said she's been encouraged in recent years, and especially recent weeks, as a wave of protests and demonstrations have brought the issues of racial injustice to the forefront of the American consciousness.
"Some people are, just, running away from the wave and some people are understanding it, and embracing it, and learning from the wave," she said.
As for the statue, it remains in storage. Some want it repaired and returned. Others say it’s time to let Columbus go. Mazzola said if it doesn’t get reinstalled, he wants it — or at least his father’s plinth. And Munro said if it does go back up, her fight for its removal will continue.