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Ohio's State Capital Grapples With Anti-Columbus Sentiment

Demonstrators stand on the base of a Christopher Columbus statue in front of City Hall during a protest against police brutality Saturday in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
Seth Herald
AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators stand on the base of a Christopher Columbus statue in front of City Hall during a protest against police brutality Saturday in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

St. Louis, St. Paul, Richmond, Boston — cities across the country have dismantled, torn down or removed their statues honoring the explorer Christopher Columbus. One of the more recent and more surprising additions to that list is his namesake: Columbus, Ohio. The city once had three Christopher Columbus statues.

Construction crews recently dismantled a marble statue on the campus of Columbus State Community College, loading it piece by piece onto a flatbed truck to be put into storage.

A small Columbus statue still stands on the lawn of the statehouse.

And there's a third that is by far the most imposing — a more than 20-foot-tall mixed metal Columbus, draped in robes, towering over City Hall.

"The celebration of Christopher Columbus really I think holds us back in moving forward on racial justice issues," City Council member Elizabeth Brown said.

"There's really hard meaningful work to be done to change policing and end systemic racism. But along the way we have to recognize that symbols matter," she said. "And this giant symbol on City Hall's front lawn, celebrating a man who brutalized and murdered Indigenous people just doesn't make sense."

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said the City Hall statue will be taken down, too. He called for a review of all public art, including the city's seal and flag, which show the ship, the Santa Maria.

"The people of Columbus have been very clear about what kind of community they want to live in," Ginther said. "One that is diverse, inclusive, and we will be able to define our community that way, not by history or statues."

But some people said they think removing the statue goes too far.

"You can't just throw it under the rug and say, 'We're not standing for this, you gotta hide this,' " said Larry Pishitelli, a local Italian immigrant. "It's our heritage. Like it or not, it's how we got here."

Joseph V. Scelsa runs the Italian American Museum in New York City, and argues that the statues are being used as political pawns to placate those asking for systemic change.

"Racism is the sin of the Americas, there's no question about that," Scelsa said. "And he's become a convenient target for people to vent out their frustration."

He said cities can remove the statues all they want, but they won't be able to erase Columbus completely — there are countless schools, universities, streets and cities named after him.

Columbus resident Shelly Corbin is part of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. For her, Christopher Columbus represents violence against all people of color. She credits the size and momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement for finally bringing the statues down.

"The Indigenous communities are very small," Corbin said. "And so the Black Lives Matter movement is happening, we can align, and we can support, and we can stand in solidarity and say hey, we're fighting the same fight."

But it is much easier to change symbols than it is to make meaningful structural changes. Columbus has a high infant mortality rate for Black babies, more COVID-19 cases in Black communities, and the highest number of police shootings of Black residents of any city in Ohio.

After the death of George Floyd, thousands of people have taken to the streets to ask for the Columbus Police Department to be reformed, or even defunded altogether. Peaceful protests have been met with pepper spray and tear gas, even after the mayor banned their usage.

Community organizer Jasmine Ayres said removing statues won't address those problems. Despite all they represent, she said she is still attached to the name Columbus.

"The people here are nice; they will pull over on the side of the road and help you change your tire," she said. "So I think I associate the people with the name, and not Christopher Columbus."

But some residents will continue to try to turn the concept of "Columbus" on its head, she said, by resettling refugees, celebrating Black culture and continuing to push for reforms throughout the city.

Copyright 2020 WOSU 89.7 NPR News

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.