COLUMBUS — Younger community members seeking to revise the traditional notion of Christopher Columbus as a noble explorer were met with resistance at a committee of the whole hearing Tuesday night where historical facts seemed up for debate.
The Columbus Common Council Committee of the Whole staged the public hearing in response to an online petition circulated by local student Abbi Adams to remove the Columbus statue standing near Highways 16/60 and 151. The committee decided to send the matter to the next regular Common Council meeting July 7 for a yes or no vote on whether to remove the statue from where it currently sits.
Adams said at the hearing that Columbus doesn’t need to change its name or deny history, but instead understand history in the correct context. Christopher Columbus is widely commemorated and credited with “discovering” America, but a movement seeks to shift his image to instead focus on his role in the violent subjugation of the continent’s native people.
“He definitely did set a precedent for how our country treats millions and millions of Native Americans,” Adams said.
Adams’ petition to remove the statue has over 1,900 signatures as of Tuesday evening, including from residents from outside Columbus. About 10 people spoke at the hearing and the city received about 20 e-mail comments (alongside one hand delivered letter to the mayor from a visitor). A counter-petition is circulating with about 500 signatures.
The rift in the historical understanding of Columbus opened up between the younger residents speaking in favor of its removal at the hearing and older residents in favor of keeping it.
Joe Roche of the town of Elba, who served on the Columbus School Board and police and fire commission, said he was amazed at the ignorance of history of Columbus High Schools students and young graduates.
“Christopher Columbus brought Christianity to the Americas,” he said. “We were founded as a Christian nation. I’m proud of it. I hope you are. Our country has been great in the history of the world.”
Frank Roelke, a recent Columbus High School graduate who said he is a Christian, said the statue of Christopher Columbus does not represent what the city stands for and that he pities the people who disagree with him, adding that it’s the conquerors who write history. He said it’s an uncomfortable feeling to learn the history you were taught isn’t what you thought it was, but it’s necessary to grow.
At some point, the Christopher Columbus statue probably has to come down anyway, because it’s located on Wisconsin Department of Transportation road right-of-way, an issue that, as council member Katie Ryan put it, presents a ticking time bomb.
City Attorney Paul Johnson studied the issue and found the statue was gifted to the city in 2012. A committee formed for the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus leaving Europe, 500 years after 1492. The statue was used for a prior celebration and the committee decided to disband, transferring its assets to the city.
Johnson said Dan Amato, founder of the Christopher Columbus Museum, transferred some land to the committee for the statue and both the land and the statue became the city’s in 2012.
When the Highways 16/60 project was started, the land was on city property. That changed when the project was completed a few years ago and the statue ended up on Department of Transportation right-of-way. The statue itself is still the city’s possession.
Johnson said the department has yet to request removal of the statue. There were council discussions about moving the statue in 2017, with concerns about the cost of doing so. The discussions went nowhere.
Jack Sanderson, a former council member and a member of the quincentennial committee, said he thinks the changes to the image of Christopher Columbus are empty allegations and that, if the statue is removed, there should be a group to study the issue over time for a recommendation. He added that Columbus lived 500 years ago in a different era.
Sanderson wrote an op-ed for the Wisconsin State Journal where he argued that Christopher Columbus should not be judged by the standards of today and that allegations about him are suspect.
“It comes down to learning history,” said resident Joe Hammer. He said he thinks history is being taught selectively in schools.
Some speakers called for a referendum. Some individuals have apparently come forward saying they would take the statue, though just placing it in a yard would present zoning issues.
Resident Cora Dahl said she loves her hometown of Columbus and hopes to live here forever. She said Christopher Columbus represents decades upon decades of suffering by Native Americans. Dahl said Columbus is a beautiful and kind city, which shouldn’t be overshadowed by a statue with chipping paint that represents the ideals of the past.
“You are never too young to start showing compassion and kindness to those around you,” Dahl said.
Though the council will soon take the first step of a vote on the statue, the next question is who will take it and where it will go. The city does not have its own publicly-owned museum to place it.
Council member Ian Gray asked for a quick vote at the next council meeting rather than dragging out the discussion.
“I am beside myself with how happy I am to see young people stepping up and trying to do something they believe is good and just for our city and community,” he said. Other council members echoed that sentiment.
Gray said that while the city does share an Anglicized version of Christopher Columbus’s name, it does not need a statue honoring him.
“We have to remember civil rights are for the minority, not the majority,” Gray said. “If you wait for the minority to get a majority vote, nothing happens.”
Council member Trina Reid said she was moved by the thoughtfulness and kindness of young people, and there should be a different location for a statue that serves as a symbol of genocide and slavery.
Council member Paul Pyfferoen said he was glad there was a dialogue and the council has a lot to work with, keeping in mind the challenge of weighing the opinion of the entire community. Council member Mike McCabe said the time had come to discuss the statue and he hopes for a positive outcome.
Mayor Mike Thom commended young people for caring and getting involved, but said there has to be a balance between swift justice and having a conversation, drumming up images from around the country of statues being torn down and damaged or destroyed.
Council members said it was important to move fast to stave off the threat of vandalism.
“I’m concerned that we will become a target,” Thom said. “We have media here tonight. If you google Columbus, Wisconsin, the cat’s out of the bag.”
He said it’s important for the city to have a recipient in mind for the statue and that if the issue gets dragged out, Columbus might end up in the news for a different reason.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!