They’re talking about removing the Columbus statue from Tower Grove Park. It’s been there for 132 years. It was unveiled on Columbus Day, 1886. The speakers included Henry Shaw, who commissioned the statue and donated the park, and Mayor David Francis, who would later become governor of Missouri and the prime mover of the 1904 World’s Fair. A band played selections from Verdi and Rossini in honor of the Italian-American community.
A lot of people have been trying to get rid of Columbus statues lately. Last year, the oldest one, in Baltimore, was destroyed by sledgehammer-wielding activists who stated, “Columbus initiated a centuries-old wave of terrorism, murder, genocide, rape, slavery, ecological degradation and capitalist exploitation of labor.”
As a former English teacher, I have to note a contradiction: if Columbus initiated that wave, it wasn’t centuries old. The writer probably meant to say that Columbus started a chain of outrages in the New World that has stretched on for the last five centuries. Apparently he wants to lay all the sins committed by many Americans at Columbus’ door. A similar opinion has been expressed by the St. Louis protestors, and I’ll return to it later.
In addition to removing statues, activists also want to get rid of the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with a celebration of Native American cultures. This movement may succeed; Columbus Day has never made the grade as a holiday. Celebrations of the explorer’s arrival began in 1792, but Oct. 12 didn’t become a federal holiday until 1937. No school I’ve ever attended, no company I’ve ever worked for, gave me Columbus Day off.
In St. Louis, a commission was formed in August to discuss the monument’s future. No deadline was set, but they will eventually make a recommendation to the park’s board of commissioners. The anti-monument side established a Facebook page, where conversations were heated and at least one death threat was made. Trying for a calming note, Bill Reininger, the park’s executive director, said, “As history changes, and the optics that we look at it change, some difficult conversations are taking place currently.”
The problem is, history does not change. Not as much as we want it to, anyway. Events that happened do not unhappen just because they trouble or embarrass us.
Chris Singer, a St. Louis protestor, gave as the reason for removing the monument that “it glorifies a moment in our history that’s not worth glorifying.” But Columbus’ landing was the first moment in our history. Americans celebrate him not because he was an admirable character, but because his voyages began the mass migration from Europe, and later from other continents, to America. He laid the first stone in the foundation of the United States.
If we’re going to heap all the sins of European-Americans at Columbus’ feet, (Singer said that he “brought with him this legacy of racism and colonialism and frankly genocide for Native American people,”) then we have to give him his share of credit for our good works, too. The 13 colonies wouldn’t have been able to declare their independence, a glorious moment in the advance of human rights, if America hadn’t been colonized in the first place.
It may sound banal and obvious to state that good and evil are inextricably entwined in this world, but the more sanctimonious of protestors don’t accept the fact. They seem to think they’re hurling down their condemnations from celestial thrones, where they repose unsullied by the compromises and ambiguities of life on Earth.
The protestors I’ve quoted talk as if the long, complex story of Europeans in America can be boiled down to a crime, of which Columbus was the lead perpetrator: Europeans murdered the Indians and stole their country. But if Columbus was a criminal, we present-day Americans are his accomplices. If not accessories after the fact, we’re inescapably receivers of stolen property.
If you want to be pure in your outrage at Columbus, you’ll have to give your house keys to an Indian and go back to Europe or wherever your family came from.
So I’m hoping that when the commission meets, the activists will get off their high horses and help make a decision that won’t embarrass us.
That will be to leave the statue in place. To remove it is to endanger the park’s status as a National Historic Landmark – and for what? Columbus is too deeply and widely rooted in America to be plucked out.
Ohio and Indiana have cities called Columbus, and Missouri and South Carolina have cities called Columbia. Then there’s the District of Columbia, Columbia University and Columbia Pictures. It’s hard to get through a week in America without saying the explorer’s name, whether you approve of him or not.
That should tell you something.