BALTIMORE — As the federal Columbus Day holiday approaches, a group of Italian Americans in Baltimore is continuing to raise money to build a replica of the Christopher Columbus statue that was torn down and thrown into the Inner Harbor last summer.
The replica is almost complete and and should be done by the end of October, said Bill Martin, an organizer of the statue’s restoration who resides in Howard County. The base of the statue has yet to be sculpted and approximately $70,000 still needs to be raised, he said.
It remains unclear where the monument will go once it’s finished.
“We’re trying to figure out where it can really go to be appreciated without being destroyed,” Martin said.
Word of the project — and the legacy of the 15th century explorer’s violent enslavement of native people — remains hurtful to Indigenous people in the Baltimore area.
Ashley Minner, an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe and Dundalk resident, said the effort to replicate the statue saddened her.
“Italian Americans who came to East Baltimore went through similar struggles that American Indian people who came to East Baltimore did,” said Minner, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. “They need a hero. Symbols are really important. I just think they could reevaluate and pick someone worthy of that reverence.”
The Columbus statue, carved in Italian Carrara marble, stood in Little Italy since 1984 when it was dedicated by President Ronald Reagan and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Protesters tore it down on the Fourth of July in 2020, tossing some of it into the harbor nearby. It was one of many monuments of enslavers or Confederate figures toppled or removed across the U.S. that year amid a national reckoning over racism.
Former Democratic state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. is part of the group working to build the replica. He is president of Columbus Celebrations Inc., which paid about $7,000 to retrieve the pieces of the Columbus monument from the harbor.
It remains unclear what, if anything, the group will do with the pieces of the original statue.
Pica remains upset about the Baltimore City Police Department’s response to the toppling of the statue.
“No arrests have been made. It was all filmed on tape,” he said.
At the time, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said “it was tactically unsafe” to stop the protesters.
Martin said the monument is being rebuilt in an undisclosed location in Maryland and was uncomfortable releasing photos of the unfinished replica to The Baltimore Sun. While the statue’s completion has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organizer confirmed a location is not set in stone.
“The previous president had a Garden of Heroes (type of) idea planned,” said Martin, referring to former President Donald Trump’s executive order for a national sculpture garden of American historical figures. “We were looking to put [the statue] on some federal property when it was completed and that obviously is not happening.”
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden revoked that order.
Despite his displeasure about the statue’s destruction, Pica said his firm, which helps plan heritage festivals in Baltimore’s Little Italy, has taken steps to be more sensitive about the complicated history surrounding the explorer.
Each year, Baltimore’s Italian community held a wreath-laying ceremony in Columbus Piazza followed by a Columbus Day Parade, a tradition for more than 120 years. Since 2019, the parade has been scaled down and replaced with an Italian Heritage Festival, held this past weekend in Little Italy with close to 2,000 attendees, said Pica, who co-chaired the event.
Pica, also a lobbyist and lawyer based in Annapolis, said representatives of Italian and Native American communities had three meetings, with the most recent being eight months ago. The communities have been in discussions to rename Columbus Piazza as Little Italy Piazza and to install a statue of an anonymous immigrant where the Columbus statue once stood.
“That’s nice to commemorate their journey and their struggle,” said Minner, the Lumbee tribe member. “I do wish the general public would realize we’re not a nation of immigrants. There are still Indigenous people here.”
Kerry Hawk Lessard, the executive director of Native American LifeLines, a federally sponsored Urban Indian Health Program serving Baltimore and Boston, attended the community meetings and said there were varying degrees of give and take, but cordial discussions with Italian-American residents.
“I’m a lifelong Baltimorean; I get the ownership that people feel around Little Italy,” Lessard said. “What I don’t think they fully understand is that beneath what is now Little Italy is the land that was first home to the bones, the memories, the dust of the ancestors, the hunting grounds of Indigenous people.”
Lessard opposes the effort to build a replica statue.
“My own family, Irish immigrants and Native Americans, none of our people have been treated particularly well, so I understand why it is important to honor the sacrifices of a people, but it would be to me like having a statue honoring Hitler in Berlin,” said Lessard, a descendant of the Shawnee and Assiniboine people as well as Dubliners.
“I have great affection for Italian people. I cared enough about Italian culture to get a degree in the language,” she said. “It’s sad to me that isn’t reciprocated.”
Pica defended the Genoese navigator and said Italian heritage should be celebrated by restoring the monument.
“Columbus Day was noted as a holiday as a result of discrimination and the outright mistreatment of Italian Americans in this country,” Pica said. “There’s a lot of history here that these individuals do not know the information. If that’s going to be the model for ignoring historical figures, let’s just deface the first 15 of the first 16 presidents, let’s change the name of Washington, D.C., let’s get rid of Carroll Park. Let’s get rid of everybody who ever had slaves.”
Jennifer Folayan, a lead organizer for Indigenous Strong, called the restoration hurtful but said “we want to focus on our next Seven Generations” — an Indigenous philosophy that says decisions made today should be sustainable seven generations into the future.
“Here in our Indigenous community, we’re still open to having healing and conversations,” said Folayan, who is of Pueblo, Cherokee and Aztec descent.
Last October, the Baltimore City Council voted to rename Columbus Day in the city as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This Monday, Folayan and Lessard will be celebrating at Johns Hopkins University’s Keyser Quad in Homewood for a pow wow featuring singing, drummers, dancing and tribal cuisine.
Minner is working to change the way Baltimoreans think about the city’s landscape and its Indigenous history. She received a $50,000 fellowship from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation in June and will launch a print Guide to East Baltimore’s Historic American Indian ‘Reservation,’ as well as a website, Instagram account and Guide to Indigenous Baltimore walking tour app on Nov. 22.
“Most immigrant communities have a homeland to which they can return, but for Native people, our homelands have been entirely covered over by an alien other,” said Lessard, paraphrasing a quote from late Luiseño artist Fritz Scholder. “There is no home lands, certainly East Coast tribes, can go to that has any semblance of what our ancestors used to know. and that I think is very important and something I don’t know that everyone with whom we spoke fully grasped or cared about.”
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