Eliza Browning (Class of 2022) explores the complex histories of a controversial Christopher Columbus statue and its site, in New London, CT. What can it tell us about race and the politics of Italian-American identity?
This essay was written for Prof. Evans’s Fall 2020 course Slavery/Protest/Public Monument.
In early June 2020, I began working as a collections and curatorial intern at the New London County Historical Society in Connecticut. Less than two weeks after I started, the city removed a 92-year-old Christopher Columbus statue from the intersection of Bank and Blinman streets, only a few dozen feet from the historical society’s headquarters [Fig. 1] (1). The decision came at a time of historic reckoning for the future of dozens of Columbus statues in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests and the May 25 murder of George Floyd. Outrage against the history of systemic racism in America extended to Columbus’s legacy of the exploitation and genocide of indigenous people, and statues from San Antonio to Providence were splashed with red paint, vandalized, decapitated, and toppled by protestors. Out of fourteen Columbus monuments in Connecticut, five of the most prominent were removed by local governments by the end of June (2). On July 4, protestors decapitated the Columbus statue outside City Hall in Waterbury (3). Critics of the monuments contest that they promote Columbus’s legacy of colonialism and slavery. Mantowin Munro of the United American Indians of New England declared Boston’s statue “a monument dedicated to white supremacy” (4).
In New London, the marble statue was spray-painted red and a petition for removal garnered more than 8,000 signatures. After a city hall meeting during which a diverse coalition of residents voiced their objections to the monument, the City Council voted unanimously to permanently remove the statue, and it was lifted from its pedestal the morning of June 12 (5). The end of the statue’s reign over the Historic Waterfront District marked a significant shift in cultural attitudes about race and ethnicity since the date of its construction in 1928. Now understood as a concrete reminder of the death, disease and destruction inflicted upon indigenous people during the Columbian exchange, the monument had formerly been considered by its patrons as a symbol of pride in their Italian heritage. Originally commissioned as part of a national campaign to counter anti-Italian discrimination, the Columbus statue now perpetuates an image of white Italian American identity that is also inherently rooted to the oppression and denigration of native peoples.
To understand the evolving perceptions of Columbus, it is necessary to separate his culturally-enshrined reputation as a heroic explorer from the reality of the colonial atrocities and genocide he initiated. Upon arriving on the island of Hispaniola in the Bahamas in October 1492, Columbus and his men immediately began to exploit both the land and inhabitants they encountered. Of the 500 members of the Taíno tribe kidnapped to be sold into slavery, more than 200 died en route to Spain, and many more in captivity (6). Returning again to Hispaniola, Columbus ordered all Taíno aged 14 and older to supply him with gold dust every month, and had their hands cut when they were unable to do so (7). Spanish explorers raped native women and girls, tortured and killed indigenous people of all ages, including pregnant women and babies, and introduced famine, disease, and the Atlantic slave trade to the island’s inhabitants (8). Less than fifty years after his arrival, only 200 Taíno remained out of the original population of approximately eight million (9).
In 1542, Columbus’s contemporary Bartolomé de las Casas estimated that Columbus was responsible for the deaths of 12 to 15 million indigenous people. His crimes were considered egregious even by many observers in his own time (10). Despite the wealth of primary accounts detailing Columbus’s actions, many Americans retain an image of the explorer as a trail-blazing explorer, an icon of patriotism, and the widely celebrated subject of a national holiday and annual parades. Only in recent years has this mythic perception been widely rejected, largely due to progressive historical scholarship such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980). The Columbus legacy has faced urgent criticisms by African American and indigenous heritage groups, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the United American Indians of New England (11).
The rise of Columbus as an American hero can largely be attributed to one group working to counter discrimination and raise their perceived social status: Italian Americans. Italian immigrants who arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were subject to the same forms of discrimination and hatred leveled at earlier so-called “undesirable” European immigrants, like the Irish. Facing an educational and language barrier and forced to compete with other immigrant communities for low-paying jobs, Italians were often the target of epithets like “wop,” “dago,” “guinea,” and even “n****r” (12). Regarded as suspect by white Protestants for their Catholic faith, Italians were also associated with anarchist and/or socialist politics, or linked to the mafia (13). Vicious stereotypes held that Italian Americans were “inherently criminal” and just barely above African Americans in a specious race hierarchy (14). In fact, Italian Americans were often racially coded as non-white, in order to disenfranchise them, and to negate their communities’ growing political and social powers.
The rising tide of anti-Italianism exploded in two violent racially charged incidents: the 1892 lynching of eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans, and the 1920 Sacco and Vanzetti trial and eventual execution. When a lynch mob attempting to avenge the death of police chief David Hennessey broke into a New Orleans prison and hung eleven Italians, few of whom had been tried and none convicted, the popular perception was that the executions were justified. Teddy Roosevelt infamously called the lynching “a rather good thing” (15). John M. Parker, a lynch mob leader and later governor of Louisiana, described Italians as “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in their habits, lawless, and treacherous” (16). This anti-Italian sentiment continued into 1920, when Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested in Braintree, Massachusetts on charges of robbery and murder. Despite their likely innocence, the two were executed in 1927 among widespread accusations of anti-anarchist and anti-immigrant bias (17).
To fight this discrimination, Italian-American mutual aid societies and heritage groups such as UNICO began a movement to honor Columbus by hosting parades and celebrations, by establishing Columbus Day as a national holiday in 1934, and by installing Columbus statues in cities across the country. Widely celebrated as the first European settler in the Americas, Columbus was selected as an icon for his Italian heritage as well as his historical importance. The ideological purposes of Columbus statues were to commemorate his role in introducing white European culture to the New World, and to affirm the image of Italian Americans as upstanding, civically minded members of their communities. Gifting a statue to the city was also a display of generosity, and its permanent installation in a public place would hopefully remind future residents of the lasting impact of Italian Americans on their nation’s history.
Most Columbus statues funded by Italian organizations were installed in cities with a significant immigrant population. Italian Americans currently comprise the largest white ethnic group in New London (10.5% of the city’s population), a community that wielded significant political and social capital at the time of the statue’s installation (18). Nonetheless, as the largest whaling port outside of New Bedford, MA, New London is home to a diverse population of many immigrant groups, making it a controversial place to erect a statue of a European colonizer. Prior to the start of European settlement in the 1600s, southeastern Connecticut was home to the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequots, who still reside on reservations in the county. New London was nearly named “Pequot” after the influence of the tribe, or “Nameaug” after the original Pequot word for the area (19). British settlers formed the majority of the city’s settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including a few wealthy slave-owning families. In the early nineteenth century, the city attracted sailors and laborers from Nova Scotia, and then from Eastern Europe during the post-Civil War period (20). Beginning in the 1950s, a majority of immigrants coming to New London have been of Hispanic origin, and primarily from Puerto Rico. According to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey, 54.6% of the city’s population was classified as “non-Hispanic white,” a category including residents with Italian, Irish, German, English and Polish ancestry (21). African Americans are 14.0% of the population, while Latinos are 21.9% (22). Compared to the state average, New London also has an above-average percentage of residents who identify as Asian and Native American (23). The city’s racially heterogeneous makeup sets it apart from the surrounding mostly white, rural communities of southeastern Connecticut. Despite its racial and ethnic diversity, the city often chooses to promote a whitewashed history to highlight New London’s role in the American Revolution. The long and intertwined histories of its many different communities are often erased from official accounts, and today, curiously absent from the many historical sites, museums and monuments in New London’s cultural landscape.
Nearly a century ago, that absence was felt by members of the Italian community, when the Italian Mutual Aid Society formed a fundraising committee in 1926 to solicit donations. By that point, two Columbus statues had already been erected in Connecticut: the first in New Haven in 1892 to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of his voyage, followed in 1926, by a monument on Columbus Green in Hartford (24). But with the Sacco and Vanzetti execution still fresh in their minds, New London’s Italian residents approached the project of a statue for their adopted city with patriotic fervor. The committee, headed by Nicholas Salegna, urged every Italian male to donate toward the cause to honor their two countries (25). These public fundraising efforts further divided an already fractured community, bitterly split along political lines. The more conventional “Shaw Street” faction (mostly immigrants from Sicily and Naples) supported the rise of Benito Mussolini’s fascist government in the 1920s (26). Tensions flared between this group and “the Fort,” a stronghold of other Italian immigrants at the heart of New London’s anarchist movement (27). This movement began in New London in the 1880s-1890s when immigrants arriving from the anarchist Marche region of northern Italy settled in a majority-Irish neighborhood on the Fort Trumbull peninsula. Working as builders, traders and shopkeepers, anarchists rejected organized religion and government. Throughout the 1920s, they mailed anonymous bomb threats to officials or posted them in public to protest deportations and the Sacco-Vanzetti case. They also rejected the nationalism of the Shaw Street community, who in turn was frustrated with how the anarchists’ subversive activities vilified the entire New London Italian community (28).
Another historical tension informs the statue’s former location on Bank Street. The Shaw Street community originally chose Bank Street’s Historic Waterfront District because it is the center of town and in the heart of an Italian-American neighborhood. Given its proximity to other New London historical sites, they hoped it would link the statue firmly to the canon of colonial history. A map of Bank Street, however, demonstrates how loaded the decision was, since the statue stood at what was also a site for slavery and racial violence [Fig. 2]. Adjacent to the statue is the New London County Historical Society, housed in the former Shaw Mansion. Nathaniel Shaw Jr., was a successful merchant and Connecticut’s naval agent during the Revolutionary War. Shaw kept ten slaves at the mansion until his death in 1782, many of whom were forced to serve prominent Revolutionary War leaders such as George Washington (29). This sobering reminder of how African-Americans were enslaved during the fight for a “free” nation was just yards from a Columbus statue meant to celebrate the nation’s “white” and essentially European origins.
Directly across the street from the Shaw Mansion stands the U.S. Custom House, where the Amistad schooner was brought after its capture by the navy in 1839. Now home to the Custom House Maritime Museum, the institution tells the story of New London’s role in the famous court case that followed the revolt by Mende captives on the ship. The museum’s website explains that “New London is the only American port to which the original La Amistad ever sailed, New London is where Dwight James first spoke up in defense of the ship’s captives, the ship stayed moored at the Lawrence Pier throughout the trial, and it was at New London’s U.S. Custom House where, ultimately, the ship and its cargo were auctioned after the conclusion of the trial” (30). Despite this brief role in promoting racial justice, subsequent incidents emphasize the city’s less celebrated history of race-based violence. During the Red Summer of 1919, for example, riots broke out across the country, and white mobs killed at least 180-300 Black civilians. On May 30, 1919, The Hartford Courant reported on “the worst riot that has occurred in this city (New London) in years,” and blamed African American soldiers recently returned from World War I for the violence. The Courant writer explained how the “trouble began when negro sailors (from the New London naval base) went into the Coast Guard Academy and attacked white sailors. For some time there has been bad blood between white and negro sailors” (31). More than 5,000 civilians watched as white sailors pursued Black sailors through Bank Street before they took refuge in the Hotel Bristol, at which point twelve sailors associated with the naval base were arrested by local police. The Associated Negro Press reported that Black sailors identified the white sailors as attacking first. Further violence occurred when white sailors raided the Hotel Bristol in retaliation. After several hours of street fighting, “much property was damaged and dozens of negroes were mobbed and severely beaten” (32). The fact that Bank Street was not only a battleground for racial justice, but had once belonged to the Pequots, makes its location all the more egregious to a modern observer.
Problems continued to plague the statue’s installation, and the ongoing tension between the two rival Italian factions erupted on Columbus Day, October 12,1928. After two years, the Italian Mutual Aid Society managed to raise the $7,000 necessary for the statue, as well as funds for the bandstands, bunting, and fees for invited speakers (33). The 9-foot, 6-inch white marble statue was designed by Armand Battelli of Pietrasanta, Italy and arrived in New York a week before Columbus Day [Fig. 3]. Larger-than-life, it featured a stern rendering of Columbus clutching a map and globe on a pedestal inscribed with his Italian name, Colombo. However, customs officials seized 3,000 cases of opium on the ship that delivered the statue, delaying its release (34). Community leaders made frantic phone calls to New York, and it arrived in New London shortly after midnight on October 11. What was formally known as Tyler Square was renamed Columbus Square (35). The celebration also served as the city’s largest ever Columbus Day celebration, featuring sponsors, guest speakers, music, and a parade [Fig. 4].
However, the day was marred by incidents revealing the discord at the heart of New London’s Italian American community. Tragedy struck when a marcher collapsed and died during the parade, and eleven people were injured in a fireworks display (36). On Steward Street [Fig. 5], a violent clash broke out between the Shaw Street pro-fascist blackshirts and the Fort Trumbull anarchists, resulting in the arrest of six anarchists, charged with instigating a riot (37). As the blackshirts marched in the parade, they were ambushed by anarchists and other members of the Italian left and beaten with pipes and clubs (38). A week later, the body of one blackshirt was found floating in the Mystic River on the same morning he was scheduled to testify in court, while the fascists’ headquarters on Shaw Street was burned (39).
Although tension between the two groups would eventually cool, the Columbus statue exposed the significant rift in attitudes among New London’s Italians concerning ethnic and national pride. The controversy over the statue’s installation demonstrated that rather than an innocuous display of Italian pride, the statue carried conservative, nationalistic associations that did not represent the views of the entire Italian American community. Specifically, the self-proclaimed fascist beliefs of the monument’s primary patrons were aggressive nationalism and supremacy over other ethnic groups. The statue’s historic association with Italian fascism is another part of its political links to white supremacy, a message that is more evident to a twenty-first century audience armed with the knowledge of Columbus’s role in enabling colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.
In June 2020, the statue once again became a battleground for heated conversations about hurtful reminders of white supremacy in the public sphere. In response to the police killing of George Floyd and the galvanization of the Black Lives Matter movement, the statue’s critics contended that its presence in downtown New London reinforced the legacy of slavery and violence sparked by the Columbian exchange. It was considered offensive by both Black and Native American residents of the community. Although the statue was the subject of several unsuccessful petitions for removal throughout the 2010s, the rapid removal of Columbus statues across the nation encouraged New London residents to try again. Mayor Michael Passero ordered the removal on June 12 after the statue was repeatedly vandalized with spray paint and sparked protests at its base [Fig. 6]. Passero moved to protect the statue, explaining that “From a public safety perspective, I didn’t want any violence over this statue. As a practical issue, I did not believe there was any way to protect it in its current location” (40). New London teenager Tessa Rock then began a petition calling for the statue’s removal that gained more than 8,100 signatures. At a special virtual town council meeting on June 16, Rock noted that there were better ways to honor Italian American contributions to New London, mentioning that her grandfather was an Italian immigrant who “worked his hardest to make New London a better city for our kids and that’s exactly what I’m doing with this debate” (41). Rock called for the city to replace the statue with a monument to the Amistad’s Mende captives who became a rallying cry for abolition when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their freedom after arriving in New London in 1839. Local high school students, members of the Black community, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Italian Americans all supported the statue’s removal, although a few of the 60 speakers voiced opposition. Frank DeFrank, the president of the UNICO National, stated that “Regardless of the protesters’ intentions, this desecration is demeaning, insulting and disrespectful to all Italian Americans. Over time Columbus has become symbolic of the Italian American experience, heritage and contribution to these United States” (42). Ultimately, the council voted 6-0 to remove the statue and permanently prohibit its display on public property (43). As of writing, the statue remains in a storage facility controlled by the Stratford-based William B. Meyer Inc., and the company believes they have the only known Columbus statue currently in storage (44).
As of November 2020, the statue’s fate remains unknown. Several solutions have been proposed, including keeping the statue in storage indefinitely. However, the city of New London paid William B. Meyer $14,500 for the statue’s removal and currently pays $86.40 a month for storage, raising questions about the appropriate use of taxpayer money (45). To avoid having residents pay for the upkeep of the statue, it could instead be destroyed or discarded, a similar fate for other Confederate and Columbus monuments across the country. Members of the city council suggested donating the statue to a museum, where it could benefit from added educational and historical context (46). The Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, which features American art with a regional focus, has been suggested, but the museum’s small size and limited floor space make it an unlikely place for permanent relocation. Nonetheless, the statue’s removal marks a momentous occasion for New London, a city that has long prided itself on the diversity of its population The community conversation which took place is the first step toward dismantling the enduring myth of Columbus. Although casting Columbus as “the first immigrant” allowed Italian Americans to gain “a formative role in the nation-building narrative”—and fight against a characterization of them as non-white and so not part of America—their assimilation and acceptance came at the expense of other marginalized groups, especially African Americans from whom Italians took extra pains to separate themselves, and of course from the indigenous people who were the first victims of Columbus (47). The “highly-politicized myth-making” embodied by the statue divided the city’s many factions, even within the Italian immigrant community; that legacy is anathema to the diversity of perspectives integral to New London history (48). New London must continue to embrace inclusive historical narratives that features the voices and stories of the many different immigrants who have made the city their home.
1) Greg Smith, “New London’s Columbus statue to remain in storage,” The Day (New London, CT), Sep. 9, 2020.
2) Andrew DaRosa, “Where Columbus statues ‘stand’ throughout Connecticut,” CTPost (Bridgeport, CT), June 17, 2020.
3) “Columbus statue decapitated in Waterbury, Conn. amid protests,” The Associated Press (New York, NY), Jul 4, 2020.
4) Dialynn Dwyer, “”It’s time for this statue to come down’: Local indigenous groups call for permanent removal of North End’s Columbus statue,” The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), June 11, 2020.
5) Zach Murdock, “New London votes to permanently remove Christopher Columbus statue after young activists speak out,” The Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), June 16, 2020.
6) Gillian Brockell, “Here are the indigenous people Christopher Columbus and his men could not annihilate,” The Washington Post (Washington, D. C.) October 14, 2019.
11) Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 1980).
12. Brent Staples, “How Italians Became ‘White,'” The New York Times (New York, NY), October 12, 2019.
18) “New London City, Connecticut – Selected Social Characteristics in the United States: 2006-2008,” American FactFinder, United States Census Bureau, accessed November 11, 2020, https://archive.vn/20200211183356/http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ADPTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=16000US0952280&-qr_name=ACS_2008_3YR_G00_DP3YR2&-ds_name=&-_lang=en&-redoLog=false
19) Benjamin Tinkham Marshall, A Modern History of New London County (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1922), 12.
21) “New London City, Connecticut – Selected Social Characteristics in the United States: 2006-2008,” American FactFinder, United States Census Bureau, accessed November 11, 2020, https://archive.vn/20200211183356/http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ADPTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=16000US0952280&-qr_name=ACS_2008_3YR_G00_DP3YR2&-ds_name=&-_lang=en&-redoLog=false
24) David Owens, “Hartford and New Haven will remove statues honoring Christopher Columbus,” The Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), June 15, 2020.
25) John Ruddy, Reinventing New London (Mount Pleasant: Arcadia Publishing, 2000), 34.
26) John Ruddy, “The anarchists next door: Books uncovers the saga of New London’s forgotten Italian radicals,” The Day (New London, CT), June 9, 2019.
29) “Shaw Mansion,” New London County Historical Society, accessed November 16, 2020, https://www.nlchs.org/about/shaw-mansion/
30) “Amistad and Abolition,” Custom House Maritime Museum, accessed November 14, 2020, https://www.nlmaritimesociety.org/amistad—abolition.html
31) “Negro Sailors Attack White at New London,” The Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), May 30, 1919.
32) “The New London Race Riots of 1919 Follow a Pandemic,” New England Historical Society, accessed November 14, 2020, https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-new-london-race-riots-of-1919-follow-a-pandemic/
33) John Ruddy, Reinventing New London (Mount Pleasant: Arcadia Publishing, 2000), 34.
36) John Ruddy, Reinventing New London (Mount Pleasant: Arcadia Publishing, 2000), 34.
37) John Ruddy, “The anarchists next door: Books uncovers the saga of New London’s forgotten Italian radicals,” The Day (New London, CT), June 9, 2019.
40) Greg Smith, “New London’s Columbus statue to remain in storage,” The Day (New London, CT), Sep. 9, 2020.
41) Zach Murdock, “New London votes to permanently remove Christopher Columbus statue after young activists speak out,” The Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), June 16, 2020.
44) Greg Smith, “New London’s Columbus statue to remain in storage,” The Day (New London, CT), Sep. 9, 2020.
46) Zach Murdock, “New London votes to permanently remove Christopher Columbus statue after young activists speak out,” The Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), June 16, 2020.
47) Brent Staples, “How Italians Became ‘White,'” The New York Times (New York, NY), October 12, 2019.