The Columbus City Council voted Tuesday to remove a fiberglass statue of Christopher Columbus that sits alongside a road on the edge of the city.
An online petition created by high school student Abbi Adams seeking removal the statue prompted a debate over the future of the statue. The Columbus statue stands near the intersection of Highways 16/60 and 151 on state owned land. Dan Amato, longtime owner of the Columbus antique mall and museum, led creation of the statue, which was set up as part of Christopher Columbus quincentennial celebrations, 500 years after 1492. The quincentennial committee dissolved in 2012 and gifted its assets to the city.
“It was never my intention to erase our history,” Adams said. “In fact, it was quite the opposite.”
Adams said she would instead hope to provide context about the statue, and that the issue has revealed residents in the city are uninformed about the true history of Christopher Columbus.
“The truth is, Columbus treated indigenous people horribly,” she said, which set the stage for the violence and oppression of Native American people for centuries to come. Activists around the country have pushed for Columbus statues to come down, Columbus Day to be changed and for the popular image of Christopher Columbus as a noble explorer to instead focus on his role in the violent subjugation of the continent’s indigenous people.
The council voted 4-1 to remove the statue from where it is, keep it under city stewardship for now and place it in a safe storage location until officials figures out what to do with it. Council member Paul Pyfferoen voted no and had expressed support for a referendum.
Talk of a referendum hung in the air, though there didn’t seem to be much of an appetite for it among a majority of the council.
Mayor Mike Thom said he liked the idea of a referendum. Thom also said the issue isn’t going to go away as the city has to figure out what to do next.
Council member Mike McCabe said he received an e-mail from a Native American resident who wrote she almost didn’t move to Columbus because of the statue, which he thinks should be used as a teaching tool.
Council member Trina Reid said her heart was broken by many of the messages she received.
“I don’t want our city to be some kind of backwards joke to the world,” she said. “That is simply how we will be seen.”
She said that if there were a referendum, whatever the result would end up being, it would portray Columbus as a place without a care for humanity.
“Columbus is better than this,” she said. “We have to be better than this.”
Council member Katie Ryan said she hasn’t heard anyone say they want to destroy the statue or erase history.
“An enormous amount of time has already been spent on this issue and I think putting the community through a referendum process might be too much for stretching it out for months and months and months,” she said. “I believe we were elected to make decisions for this community.”
Gray said it would be best to come to a decision and move forward, instead of dragging the issue out further with a referendum and contributing to animosity.
He said he understands the issue is contentious but that’s why it’s the council’s responsibility to act now. Gray said if a resident doesn’t like it his decision, they can vote for someone else in the next election.
“That’s my belief,” he said. “I’m not going to hide.”
John Walz, from outside Columbus and part of the local Knights of Columbus chapter, said the best option would be to keep the statue where it is. Otherwise, the Knights of Columbus should become its caretakers.
“I believe he was a real hero,” he said.
Local student Cora Dahl said Christopher Columbus brought disease to the native people and was involved in raping and torturing them, preceding a long history of violence and persecution: reservations, the Trail of Tears, the whitewashing of Native culture.
“I’ve learned that kindness and compassion has never come short in our town and this is what we need to show and remove our statue,” Dahl said.
Chip Tiedeman of Rio sent children to Columbus schools and said there didn’t seem to be a problem with Christopher Columbus back then. He wondered what will be left if you start taking things like the statue away.
A former history teacher said Columbus was neither a saint nor a sinner and said he thinks both sides are going to extremes. Resident Pete Adams said each generation does its part to realize a more perfect union and asked whether Columbus wants someone who contributed to genocide and slavery, and was also a famed navigator, to represent the city.
Jack Sanderson said the issue should be studied over the next year or two instead of making the decision in a heated moment politically.—
“To take it down now is to basically surrender to the mob,” Sanderson said.
Frank Roehlke noted people used to argue in favor of the morality of slavery or Jim Crow laws. He pointed out one major bureaucratic issue with the statue: it’s owned by the city, but is located on state right-of-way.
“Whether or not you love it or hate it, it’s irresponsible to keep it where it is,” he said. “We can be responsible and move it. The matter of the fact is — it has to go.”
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