Dear Editor:

Christopher Columbus is a controversial man. Among other things, I recently read an article in the Home News about Columbus that went on for two pages about the good and bad things that Columbus may or may not have done. The article concluded with the following questions and answers. Was Columbus a bad man? The case could be made. Was Columbus a good man? The case could also be made.

As a simple person with no politically partisan feelings about him either way, I am here to talk about the truths I do know.

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Although others may have stumbled onto America, it was Columbus who discovered the American continent, leading to among other things the great nation we live in today.

In 1882, Father Michael McGivney created the Knights of Columbus to protect those widows who were left destitute due to the loss of their husbands.  Service and charity are at the heart of the Knights.  Founded to meet the needs of immigrants, refugees and families suffering from the death of a breadwinner, the Knights began as a small service organization and has grown into a worldwide financial and charitable organization.  I am a proud third-degree Knight.

I know that Scotch Plains was recently described to me by someone I know and respect, and who moved here just a few years ago, as one of the most loving communities she has ever lived in.  I know that the Italian Americans who have been settling here for 150 years have had a significant influence on the development of Scotch Plains.

The earliest Italians came here to work in the mills on the Green Brook, but they were soon followed by stone crushers who paved our roads and laid our trolley tracks. Many of the houses on our North Side were built with Italian hands, and for over 100 years Park Avenue has been lined with Italian-American owned small businesses. The LaCostas’ grocery, Losavio’s butcher shop, and Alfonso Sabatino’s barber shop were all in a line right across the street from our village green. Because of the town’s Italian heritage, Montazzoli, Italy, the town that gave Scotch Plains so many of its immigrants, is our proud sister city. Thomas Santo Salvo Sr., who became our first Italian mayor in 1941, was born there. His son would also serve as our mayor, in 1968.

I know that UNICO has done great things for this town.  Every year the chapter raises and donates thousands of dollars to support scholarship programs, organizations, and individuals in the New Jersey area.  Since 1974, the chapter has co-sponsored the St. Bart’s/UNICO Italian Festival, which attracts thousands and thousands of visitors over Labor Day weekend and is one our town’s most beloved institutions. 

I know that the motto for UNICO is “service above self,” the same motto as the Rotary. But back in the 1920’s, Italian-Americans faced discrimination and were barred from joining the Rotary, so they started UNICO. And I am proud to say that after two years of lobbying, I am now an honorary member of UNICO. I am also a proud member of the Fanwood-Scotch Plains Rotary.

I know that in 1998, based on a design by Lenox Brown, an African-American Union County College student, the Christopher Columbus Monument was paid for and placed by UNICO with great love in recognition of the many contributions to Scotch Plains by its Italian-American residents.

I know that approximately 112 Italian-American residents of Scotch Plains who served in the armed forces are depicted on our Home Town Heroes Banners. Five of them gave their lives for this country so that we today have the freedom to debate the Columbus Monument.

To remove the monument due to what Christopher Columbus may or may not have done 500 years ago would be greatly disrespectful to all the current and past Scotch Plains Italian-Americans who have contributed so much to making Scotch Plains the great community it is. 

As Mayor, I will do all I can to maintain the monument in recognition of the contributions that Italian-Americans have made to our town, and as I have done for the past three years, I will proudly participate in the Columbus Day ceremonies at town hall in October.

Having said that, our real work isn’t done. Christopher Columbus has been dead for over 500 years, but Breonna Taylor has been dead less than 5 months and George Floyd less than two months. When I marched with Black Lives Matter, along with my fellow council members and our police a month ago, we did it to bring our community together to focus on what matters now. We cannot get distracted from this. My work on the Joint Truth, Racial Healing, Transformation (THRT) Committee is among the things I am most proud of, and I will continue and invite all of Scotch Plains to fight for changes to remove the vestiges of racism in our community, Now!

Thank you and God Bless America.

Al Smith
Mayor of Scotch Plains