Days after a judge ruled this week that the City of Philadelphia cannot move a Christopher Columbus statue from Marconi Plaza, Mayor Jim Kenney announced that his office would appeal the ruling. This reignites the battle over the statue, which became a lightning rod amid protests last year against police killings and racism. A group of men, some armed, surrounded the statue in response to Columbus likenesses elsewhere in the country being defaced, with some activists noting the Italian explorer’s legacy of brutality against Indigenous people. Then the city covered the statue in a box.
While some argue that a Columbus statue glorifies someone who spread slavery and murder, others defend the statue’s placement as appropriate given Columbus’ impact in U.S. and world history. To tap into this debate, The Inquirer asked two Philadelphians: Legal battle aside, should the Columbus statue move?
Yes: It belongs in a museum to put Columbus’ ugly legacy in context.
By Concetta Seminara
As a proud Italian American who grew up in Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s and who now resides in South Philadelphia, I can attest to the fact that the story of Christopher Columbus was highly sanitized when I attended Catholic elementary school and public high school.
In the Italian American community, Columbus was a source of ethnic and historic pride. However, as I learned the true story of Columbus in my mid-to-late 20s, it saddened me that the scholars largely responsible for designing the U.S. history curriculum — at least the one I was exposed to in elementary school — had done both American students and the Italian American people an injustice with a dishonest retelling of history.
In the past, Italian Americans saw Columbus as representing the pride of our strong, hardworking, and patriotic people. These earnest folks saw the navigator as a brave explorer and hero. Largely ignorant of his true story, they would not have considered him an offensive historical figure or a source of shame.
I believe, going forward, Columbus the historical figure should be seen for his notable place in European maritime navigational history — while the story of his acts of slavery, violence, murder, material rapaciousness, and heinous sex crimes against the Native American people must be diligently recounted in the U.S. history curriculum, within the proper context of the 15th century.
In my opinion, Marconi Plaza is not the right home for such a display. But the Independence Seaport Museum would be the appropriate home for the Columbus statue, as long as it could be presented with a detailed and thoughtful explanation of his historical significance in the context of both maritime history and the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas.
I also feel very strongly that the Columbus statue, which should be removed from Marconi Park, must be replaced by a statue of another Italian historical figure.
Antonio Meucci (1808-1889) would be a logical choice, as he first invented the telephone (actually before Alexander Graham Bell). Meucci would perfectly compliment Marconi, the inventor of the telegraph and the “Father of Wireless” communication, whose statue currently stands across the street.
Other possible replacement statue candidates would include the following venerable Italians: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti for pioneering art, Galileo Galilei for achievements in astronomy, and Alessandro Volta who invented the electric battery.
“The place of Italians in the world and the U.S. has been far too monumental to be tragically reduced to a racist trope because of one historical figure responsible for serious crimes against Native Americans.”
The Italian American community of Philadelphia has contributed to the economic, social, educational, cultural, and political fabric of Philadelphia since the late 19th century. This dynamic and civic-minded community remains worthy of a public art display that celebrates the many positive aspects of both Italian and Italian American history.
The place of Italians in the world and the U.S. has been far too monumental to be tragically reduced to a racist trope because of one historical figure who was responsible for serious crimes against Native Americans. He must now be placed in the proper context for his time, warts and all — and away from Marconi Plaza.
Concetta Seminara was raised in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. She lived in Montgomery County and in New Jersey for 20 years before returning to the city in 2014. She has spent a lifetime visiting her mother’s native Italy.
No: Lay to rest any controversy and move on to bigger, more pressing matters.
By Christopher Tremoglie
Philly’s Christopher Columbus statue received justice this week as Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick ruled that it can remain in Marconi Plaza. The decision comes after the city tried to remove it from its current location. Philadelphia should leave the statue at the plaza, lay to rest any controversy surrounding the monument, and move on to bigger, more pressing matters.
The attacks on the Columbus monument were never grounded in sound logic identifying concrete concerns. The statue has been at Marconi Plaza for decades. It was never a frequent hot spot for crime or vandalism. It was always a symbol of Italian American pride and an appropriate ending spot for the city’s annual Columbus Day parade.
Columbus was celebrated because of the contribution he made to world history. As we all know, he did not discover the American continent. He was not even the first person to visit the continent. However, what Columbus did do that no other person did was inform the “Old World” of the existence of the “New World.” It is the innovation, dedication, empowerment, and courage of his journey that is celebrated. It was these traits that led to his discovery, intentional or not, that changed the course of history forever.
While critics rebuke Columbus for his harsh treatment of Indigenous people, it is unfair to judge 15th-century society and norms through the 21st-century lens of progressive ideologues. What normally gets omitted in criticisms of Columbus is the behavior that many find so horrific was also employed by many others, including other European settlers and members of North American Indigenous groups. So rather than oversimplify and ignore history, the city should move on from this nonsensical crusade and onto matters that are causing Philadelphians to lose their lives right now.
The Columbus monument did not cause Philadelphia to have the highest murder rate per capita in the country. It did not cause Philadelphia to become America’s poorest big city. It did not cause drug overdose deaths to surge in Philadelphia, nor cause an inadequate Philadelphia School District. City residents should worry about issues that actually impact Philadelphians. We shouldn’t worry about toxic, symbolic crusades.
“The Columbus monument has its home at Marconi Plaza and it should stay there. Judge Patrick established there is no legal basis to move it.”
For the betterment of the citizens of the city, leadership needs to focus on legitimate issues plaguing the city — not contrived outrage at nonexistent problems that will have no genuine effect on the everyday lives of people. If anything, it can be argued that Mayor Jim Kenney and the Philadelphia officials who sought to remove the Columbus monument need to embody the innovation, creativity, and courage found in Columbus’ expeditions. Such characteristics in leadership will be the only way to cure the ills that exist in our great city.
Judge Patrick’s wise ruling and bravery to not give in to the social pressures is a good start to move our city forward. The city has plenty of challenges. Worrying about a statue that celebrates one of the most notable discoveries in the history of the world takes focus away from saving one of the greatest cities to evolve from that discovery.
The Columbus monument has its home at Marconi Plaza and it should stay there. Judge Patrick established there is no legal basis to move it. Philadelphians should realize there is no logical reason to move it. Worry about things that are causing Philadelphians to die and that keep Philadelphians in poverty instead of worrying about a monument.
Christopher Tremoglie is a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and from Philadelphia. He graduated cum laude with majors in political science and Russian and East European studies and has written for the National Review, Broad + Liberty, and the Washington Examiner.