Commentary: Taking down Syracuse’s Columbus statue comes with controversies

Commentary: Taking down Syracuse's Columbus statue comes with controversies

Some community members wish for the Christopher Columbus statue to remain.
Published: October 7, 2021
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Italian-Americans and other patrons gathered at the annual Columbus Day wreath-laying ceremony in 2020 to protest Mayor Walsh's decision to remove the statue.

As Syracuse heads toward Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the upcoming mayoral election, the conversation surrounding the Christopher Columbus statue in downtown Syracuse remains at the forefront of many residents’ minds.

On Oct. 9, 2020, Walsh announced plans to relocate the Columbus statue to a private location and turning the Columbus Circle area into an area that would highlight groups of people who faced oppression in the United States, including Indigenous people; Black and brown people; and immigrant groups, new and historic.

Kateleen Ellis, an Indigenous woman and a senior at Syracuse University, said that she supports the removal of the statue. While she sees why the statue is seen as significant culturally for many Italian Americans, she said that mindset doesn’t account for the effects of colonialism that are still seen today.

“It’s not a great representation of the history at all,” Ellis said. “Once you know the history and really take that into consideration, I really believe it is doing more harm than it is doing any good.”

In May, Walsh appointed an advisory commission that aims to turn Columbus Circle into a heritage and education site. The commission is made up of Italian American community members and members of the Onondaga Nation, as well as religious leaders and common councilors.

Walsh also named an Italian American Task Force that would provide guidance for relocating the Christopher Columbus statue.

Shortly after Walsh named the commission, the Columbus Monument Corporation sued the city, stating that Walsh does not have authority to remove the statue without approval from Syracuse Common Council, according to syracuse.com. The organization’s lawsuit also claims that the statue is protected by preservation laws.

The Columbus Circle Historic District was placed in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Some Italian Americans and other immigrant groups of the mid-1800s through the early 1900s saw Christopher Columbus as a hero figure for immigrants, said Nick Pirro, vice president of the Columbus Monument Corporation and former Onondaga County executive.

“It’s a beautiful piece of public art,” Pirro said. “It’s a shame that one person has decided that he wants to destroy the heritage of another person.”

Italian-Americans protested against Mayor Walsh's decision to remove the Christopher Columbus statute at the annual wreath laying ceremony in 2020.
Italian-Americans protested against Mayor Walsh's decision to remove the Christopher Columbus statute at the annual wreath-laying ceremony in 2020.

The move to remove the statue also came under criticism from Republican mayoral candidate Janet Burman. Burman has said that Walsh, who is currently running for re-election as an independent candidate, has prioritized the issue of the statue instead of other pressing issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, public safety and housing availability.

“I think he’s using this as an opportunity to distract citizens from his failures in other aspects of his job,” Burman said.

Burman said she does not support the plan for a heritage park downtown. She said she would like if there was a heritage trail that runs through the city with many more statues of figures from many different ethnic groups in the central New York area.

Ellis said she believes in creating a space in downtown Syracuse such as a heritage park that can be a space for residents to share.

“A lot of beliefs are everything that we are supposed to be doing comes from the land and eventually goes back to the land,” Ellis said. “Make it a space that is inclusive. Greenery, places for people to sit, and maybe a stage where different cultural groups can go and do things in this space open for other people to join and participate.”

Burman said she believes that many residents are not concerned with the fate of the statue leading up to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. She added that she wants city leaders to focus on other issues.

But several advocacy groups in Syracuse — including the Women of Italian and Syracuse Heritage in Central New York, Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, and the Resilient Indigenous Action Collective — are planning to gather at the Columbus statue on Oct. 11 to recognize the negative effects of colonialism and “lay his false hero image to rest.”

Ellis remembers when Walsh first proposed removing the statue. She said that around the same time, many Indigenous students at SU started discussing what the statue represents.

“People were quite happy about that news. But it was more like, ‘we’ll believe it when we see it.’ I’m not surprised that … it’s in question to not be removed now. ” Ellis said. “Hopefully they still follow through with the removal.”

Avatar for Richard J Chang

is a digital producer for The NewsHouse.