Rhode Island’s highly criticized Columbus statue re-emerges in nearby town after being removed 3 years ago

  • Three years ago, a Christopher Columbus statue was removed from a square in Providence, Rhode Island.
  • The statue was removed following criticism and vandalism by activists who said the memorial celebrates rape, murder, and genocide of Indigenous people. 
  • The bronze cast has since re-emerged in a park in Johnston, several miles west of Providence. 

Three years after a Christopher Columbus statue was removed from a square in Providence, Rhode Island, the bronze cast has re-emerged, this time in a park in Johnston, Rhode Island, about 9 miles west of the capital.

The statue had been targeted by vandals, at one point being splashed with red paint with a sign reading “Stop celebrating genocide” leaning against its pedestal. In 2020, the statue was removed.

Activists say celebrating Columbus ignores the rape, murder and genocide endured by Indigenous people during the European settlement of North America.

Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. said residents of his heavily Italian-American town are pleased to give the statue a new home.

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“It’s important and not just for Italian Americans. It’s American history. It’s world history, if you look at it from a historical perspective,” he said.

While not the first European to land in North America — that’s believed to be Leif Erikson — Columbus helped usher in a wave of European exploration and expansion, and ultimately the era of globalization, Polisena said.

After the statue was taken down and placed in storage, it was purchased for about $50,000 by former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr. who then reached out to see if Johnston would take it, Polisena said.

The statue — which depicts Columbus pointing forward with his right arm while holding a globe in his left — will be formally unveiled on Monday.

Christopher Columbus statue

A statue of Christopher Columbus stands in a park on Sept. 26, 2023, in Johnston, Rhode Island.  (Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, Jr. via AP)

“I don’t want to see it destroyed. I don’t want to see it melted down,” Polisena said. “People should learn about him, the good and the bad.”

Polisena said he understands the criticism targeted at Columbus, but said it’s unfair to use the standards of 2023 to measure the actions of someone who lived five centuries ago.

Not everyone is thrilled with the relocation of the 15th century explorer’s likeness.

The statue should never have been resurrected after it was taken down, according to Harrison Tuttle, president of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC.

“You don’t have to be Indigenous to understand the harm that Christopher Columbus inflicted,” he said. “To see it go back up is really tone deaf to all the progress we made just three years ago.”

Tuttle said he understands the connection that many of Italian descent feel for Columbus, but said he shouldn’t be the vehicle for the pride Italian-Americans feel for their contributions to the country.

He also said he wished the mayor had spoken with members of the community who were offended by the decision install the statue.

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“My grandmother who helped raise me was Italian and I grew up in a majority Italian neighborhood,” he said. “At the same time, there are better ways to celebrate your heritage and culture without celebrating someone who in my opinion is the exact opposite of what Italian culture is.”

Other cities have grappled with the legacy of Columbus statues.

In 2020, Boston’s Christopher Columbus statue located in the city’s largely Italian North End neighborhood was taken down after its head was knocked off.

In 2020, a Columbus statue in Richmond, Virginia, was torn down by protesters, set on fire and thrown into a lake. In 2022, a Columbus statue was removed from the California Capitol rotunda. Also last year, crews removed a plywood box that had been placed over a Philadelphia statue of Christopher Columbus.

Camden, New Jersey, also removed their Columbus statue.

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Darrell Waldron, director of the Rhode Island Indian Council said there’s no love lost between Native peoples and the legacy of Columbus.

“I think Columbus opened a Pandora’s box for Indigenous people,” he said. “People who were the victims of rape and murder and genocide were not writing the history.”

At the time that the statue was being removed in Providence, Waldron – the son of a Narragansett father and Wampanoag mother — said he and others hoped that the statue would have been sold off and kept out of public view, with any proceeds going to help fund a Native statue.

“I would love to see a statue of Native women,” he said. “It doesn’t always have to be a man.”

The debate over the statue comes amid a larger debate about what to call the federal holiday that falls on Monday, Oct. 9, this year.

In 2021, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, lending a boost to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples.

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