Prior to Columbus Day being celebrated on the second Monday in October, it was a federal holiday on October 12. It was a day that both private and public schools were closed in Columbus, Ohio. Nowadays statues of Christopher Columbus and other historic figures are being maligned and vandalized. Perhaps we should consider the times and circumstances when these statues were erected. Take for instance the two statues of Christopher Columbus which are prominently displayed in two different locations in central Ohio.
One statue of Columbus continues to tower in front of City Hall, all three tons of copper, rising more than two stories skyward. It is the work of Italian sculptor Edoardo Alfieri and a gift from the people of Genoa, Italy (the birthplace of Cristoforo Colombo) to the citizens of Columbus, Ohio. It is a much photographed monument by visitors to this urban capital. The Italian gift arrived just in time for the October 12, 1955 Columbus Day celebration as a tribute to Genoa’s native son and Genoa’s friendship with the city of Columbus.
A smaller statue of Christopher Columbus sits on the south side of the Ohio State Capital on Capital Square. It was a gift to the city of Columbus in 1932 from Monsignor Joseph Jessing, the founder of a Catholic seminary in Columbus.
In 1892 when our nation celebrated the 400th aniversary of Columbus’s first voyage, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging all Americans to celebrate the event. Jessing commissioned a Salem, Ohio company to manufacture a statue of Christopher Columbus to exhibit on the school grounds located on the East side of Columbus. The statue was created using the hollow metal method popular in 1892. This replica was made from hammered copper plates using rivets to join the metal plates. It was an inexpensive and quick technique. As the Josephinum Seminary outgrew its Eastside campus, Jessing found land north of Columbus and moved the seminary to Worthington in 1932. In that move, Jessing offered the 1892 copper statue to the city fathers. It has remained there ever since with some transformation to its base in 1992 when the governor of Genoa, Liguria (Italian city and state) joined state and city officials for a rededication.
Columbus Day is one of 10 federal holidays giving federal employees the day off. It is also one federal holiday that is celebrated inconsistently across our nation. In recent years, this holiday has become problematic for some who want to replace it with Indigenous People’s Day.
A number of Americans point out the enslavement and genocide of Native Americans after the arrival of Columbus and other explorers. Those who favor renaming the second Monday in October are eager to reaffirm the legacy of the indigenous people who roamed the Americas long before any explorer. As a result of these contentious feelings, statues of Columbus in a number of communities throughout our nation have been defaced and grafittied. Some states no longer celebrate Columbus Day.
For others, Columbus Day represents the values of discovery and risk which are at the heart of American dreams. Italian-Americans, like other ethnic groups, are proud of the contributions their countrymen and ancestors have made to the world and our country. They remind us that all individuals are flawed and a monument is merely a snapshot of our history. Numerous Italian-Americans in communities around our country sacrificed financially to honor an explorer who had been celebrated for centuries.
Perchance students from a Northern Ohio public middle school have the answer to this dilemma. Three years ago, as part of a cultural exchange, the students at The Lippman School in Summit County invited the Northern Cheyenne Nation of Montana to walk with them on the city’s historic Portage Path, an ancient trail connecting the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers, to acknowledge the indigenous people who walked the path long before 1492. The walk was not an anti-Columbus Day walk, but rather a day embracing the region’s entire history. The students created a web-based app that offered details and history of the path along with signage incorporating QR codes that are compatible with the app. Not only that, the students also proposed a First People’s Day, a day to be celebrated the week prior to Columbus Day.
If we judge the political correctness of historical figures based on our times and circumstances rather than the times and circumstances that preceded us, perhaps we are committing “generational chauvinism.”
Let’s consider the proposal from students in Summit County and celebrate both!
Wanda Dengel, B.S., M.A.T., is a long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher who served on the Diocesan Catholic Schools Advisory Commission in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org