NEWARK, NJ — The clamor of djembe drums and laughter danced in the air as a small group gathered in Washington Park late Thursday night. Above them, the source of their joy swung from a crane - Christopher Columbus.
After years of contention, the statue of the 15th-century explorer, which was dedicated in 1927 as a gift from the Italian-American community, was removed by the city of Newark overnight. As communities worldwide grapple with controversial figures as public monuments, New Jersey’s largest municipality has taken a clear stance on what Columbus represents, once and for all.
It was an honor & privilege to stand guard with a small group of Newarkers to take down the Columbus Statue on Washington Park. We danced, we cried, we laughed, we smudged, and we offered up our love to our ancestors & made a new future. by @shertillet pic.twitter.com/qHt5r2LST5— Salamishah Tillet (@salamishah) June 26, 2020
Although demonstrations against racism in Newark have been largely calm and without significant destruction, Mayor Ras Baraka said the city decided to preemptively remove the statue in anticipation of people unseating Columbus themselves.
“In keeping with the movement to remove symbols of oppression and white supremacy, we have decided to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from Washington Park,” Mayor Ras J. Baraka said in a statement. “We took it down with City work crews in a safe and orderly manner, to avoid the potential danger of people taking it upon themselves to topple it.”
Across the United States, commemorations of Columbus are meeting similar fates: Philadelphia will remove a statue in Marconi Park amid public safety concerns. Another in San Antonio, Texas stands coated in red paint, and Providence, Rhode Island removed their own on Thursday hours before Newark.
In 2017, Baraka declared the second Monday in October would be celebrated as Indigenous Peoples Day in Newark, a move that has grown in popularity through the state and country as citizens come to understand Columbus' full history. Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, South Dakota, New Mexico and a host of others have all done away with celebrations of Columbus in recognition of his documented enslavement of and brutality toward the indigenous people he ruled over in the New World.
According to Junius Williams, Newark’s city historian, many people simply do not know Columbus beyond the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, simple narratives they were provided growing up. It’s that misunderstanding of history that had led to tributes in the form of statues and federal holidays, which for many represent a painful reminder of state-sanctioned oppression.
“Columbus is, in my mind, a colonialist, an enslaver, someone who projected racism into the North American experience. He enslaved the native Americans, raped the women, the Spanish were the epitome of everything America should not be,” Williams said. “He is not the person many people think he is, and as a matter of fact, he died still thinking that he had discovered a new way to get to the Indies.”
But for the Italian-Americans who remain in Newark and Essex County, Columbus remains a cultural symbol and a source of pride. While Baraka explicitly stated that the removal of the statue was not to be construed as an insult to Italians, some are taking it that way, and wondering why there was no room for public discussion of the issue.
For Williams and many others in Newark, which has shifted demographically to reflect a mostly Black and Latinx population since the statue was erected, there isn’t much to discuss.
“The debate is being waged throughout America, and throughout the world, about how to treat oppressive people. I don’t think there’s any need to have any further discussion, I think the mayor did the right thing,” Williams said. “It’s not something that speaks highly of Newark to have a person such as that in an honored position.”
Salvatore Benvenuti, executive director for UNICO National, an Essex County-based Italian-American cultural and service organization, expressed shock and dismay at Baraka’s decision to retire Columbus. To him and his community, Columbus represents the first Italian explorer to make it across the Atlantic and discover North America.
Benevenuti is not entirely convinced of what documents uncovered by historians show was a pattern of barbarism and iron discipline under Columbus’ command of the Indies.
“Some people say that there were people living here already, and that’s true, but they were very primitive,” he said “A lot of these allegations are nothing more than what was going on in the world at that time. (Slavery) wasn’t something Columbus invented or created.”
He added that he feels Italian-Americans are the silent minority in disputes over Columbus’ legacy, and equated Baraka’s choice to remove the statue in the middle of the night as “barbaric as what he’s alleging Columbus did.”
“In this country, we do have due process, and in most cities where action is being recommended or considered to take down a statue, it’s usually considered in an open forum, not in the middle of the night like a thief,” he said.
Controversies aside, here in Newark, a 93-year-old point of contention has begun a new voyage in city storage.