It’s Time for Philadelphia to Take Down Its Own Symbol of Hatred
On Monday, the right-thinking people of the Union let out a collective you go girl when South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol less than a week after a white man walked into a historic African Methodist Episcopal church and assassinated nine black people. Most Philadelphians shake their head at the notion of such a hateful symbol being so prominently displayed — those crazy rednecks! — but the truth is that we have our own monument to hatred.
Philadelphia’s Christopher Columbus Monument was built in 1992, in celebration of the quincentenary of his “sailing the ocean blue.” The roadway adjacent to it was also renamed “Columbus Boulevard,” though most Philadelphians still refer to it as Delaware Avenue.
The sculpture — not a figure of the explorer but an obelisk — was designed by prestigious Philadelphia architecture firm Venturi Scott Brown and spearheaded by Andrew Farnese — the grandfather of State Senator Larry Farnese — who signed on a veritable Who’s Who of Philadelphians (mostly Italian Americans) to make it happen. Names like Vincent Fumo, Edward Rendell, Anna Verna, Walter D’Alessio, Nicholas DeBenedictis, G. Fred DiBona, and Charles Pizzi appear high on the engraved list of benefactors on the statue, which is also notable because it is one of the most unattractive pieces of public art in Philadelphia. But we’ll let others debate the artistic merit.
Also engraved on the Columbus monument is a description of its namesake and his accomplishments:
COLUMBUS, INTREPID NAVIGATOR, WITH A SENSE OF THE SEA UNPARALLELED BEFORE OR AFTER HIM… AN HONORED HERO OF HISTORY. HIS KEEN INTELLECT, ABIDING FAITH, AND UNDAUNTED PERSISTENCE MADE HIM A GIANT AMONG MEN OF THIS MILLENNIUM.
Some 23 years later, we know that Columbus did a whole lot more than just sail the ocean blue, and his status as an “honored hero of history” has fallen several notches. And actually, back in 1992, people weren’t unaware of Columbus’ misdeeds. When writing about the monument, Inquirer architecture critic Thomas Hine noted the “ambiguous” nature of the observance, adding, “It may once have been easy to build a heroic monument to Columbus and the discovery of the New World, but in 1992, it is more difficult.”
But now we know even more about Columbus and his legacy of evil.
In case your only source of information is Fox News, a brief primer. Columbus did not discover America. He did not set out to prove that the world was round. What he did do was rape, murder and steal, initiating what some historians have characterized as genocide against the people he found in the “New World,” all in the name of Christianity.
One example of Columbus’ barbarity and cruelty is the “tribute system” he created. Any indigenous person over the age of 14 was forced to turn over a specified amount of gold every three months, and if they didn’t, it was off with their hands and they were left there to bleed to death.
Columbus is also credited with launching the prolific business known as the Atlantic slave trade. Under his authority, untold numbers of men, women and children were kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Does this really sound like a man who should be honored with a monument, a monument that now finds itself in the middle of the children’s play area at Philadelphia’s much-ballyhooed Spruce Street Harbor Park?
Philadelphia is, of course, not the only city to erect a Columbus monument. (We actually have two: the other one is in a South Philadelphia park and dates to the 1800s.) Hundreds of cities around the world have their own monuments to the great explorer, and most of them predate ours by decades or more. But that doesn’t mean that our city shouldn’t be the first to tear one down.
The fact is, history is an evolving narrative. In this case, since the times when most of us alive today were in elementary school, that narrative has evolved to show us that Christopher Columbus was a monster, not a hero. And a monument to a murdering, barbaric slave trader has about as much place in Philadelphia as does a Confederate flag at South Carolina’s Capitol.
Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.