SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh’s decision last week to take down the Christopher Columbus statue and rename Columbus Circle was met with mixed reactions, even within the Italian American community.
The Columbus Monument Corporation released a statement saying they “fully intend to pursue every legal recourse to stop the monument from being removed.”
According to secretary Bob Gardino, the group hired a team of lawyers, and they are in the process of collecting documents to prove under the law why the Columbus statue should stay erected. For one, he said the site where the statue is has local preservation and national protected site statuses.
The Columbus Monument Corporation was formed in 1927 with the purpose of raising funds to build the statue. The group initially raised $21,783.14, and the Columbus statue was erected in 1934 in what was then called St. Mary’s Circle. In 1991, the statue was vandalized during protests of Columbus, and the city of Syracuse paid nearly $450,000, with the help of the Columbus Monument Corporation, to restore the statue ahead of the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage, according to the Onondaga Historical Association.
“This is not a game we’re playing,” Gardino said. “This is not chess or checkers. We are, mark my words, we are in a war to save him, to save our heritage, to save our history in this country.”
He said Columbus symbolizes a sense of belonging in the United States to Italian Americans who at one point were discriminated against.
“He became the symbol of their work and effort, the symbol of being oppressed and the symbol of their love and wanting to be accepted by this country,” Gardino said. “The Syracuse Columbus monument is that intense symbol.”
Syracuse resident and Hamilton College professor of government Peter Cannavo remembers this discrimination from when he was growing up.
“People used to ask me if I had relatives in the Mafia, especially since I’m mostly Sicilian, which was really hurtful, and it sort of erased everything my family had achieved,” he said.
However, Cannavo does agree with Walsh’s decision. He sees Columbus as a symbol that Italian Americans have achieved “whiteness.”
“The whole Columbus story, in many ways, is about Italian Americans gaining their ticket into being recognized or considered white,” Cannavo said. “My view is, as a group that has long been marginalized, I think Italian Americans really should be in solidarity with other marginalized groups, people of color, Indigenous people, and work toward inclusion rather than claiming this piece of white European identity and saying, you know, ‘we’re European too and we’ve got Columbus to prove it.’”
Gardino and the Columbus Monument Corporation do still want to reach a compromise with the city. He said they’ve proposed making the area a heritage site, and he’s currently working with a company to make the site a virtual reality history experience.
“This area becomes a heritage park honoring all, including Native Americans,” Gardino said. “This becomes a plot of land that respects all who came here, not just some.”
Walsh has not yet announced plans for the future of the statue or when it will come down, other than that it will be moved to a private location for viewing.