Beheading of Columbus statue prompts discussion

Walsh putting six-foot figure in storage for now

SOMEONE BEHEADED the statue of Christopher Columbus in the North End of Boston Tuesday night, prompting a discussion about what the piece of chiseled Tuscan marble symbolizes.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh condemned the act of vandalism, but said the statue and its head will be kept in storage for the time being. “Given the conversations that we’re having right now in our city and throughout the country, we’re also going to take time to assess the historic meaning of the statue,” he said.

The six-foot statue was dedicated on Columbus Day 1979 at a ceremony where former mayor Kevin White and former governor John Volpe were present. But as the turn of the century came, the statue suffered repeated desecrations – the head was decapitated for the first time in 2006, “murderer” was painted on it in 2015, and the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was written on it in red paint.

Columbus was an Italian explorer who colonized parts of the Americas on behalf of Spanish Catholic monarchs between 1492 and 1504. While searching for gold, he and his men enslaved the natives they conquered and brought about their near genocide through disease, rape, and overwork. In letters to Spanish royalty, Columbus outlined his dealings, including the trade of 10-year-old indigenous girls.

Many school committees across Massachusetts have changed the name of the Columbus holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day.

As city workers began removing the statue on Wednesday, a group of people gathered around to watch.

“Oh God, that’s just awful,” said a woman wearing a Trump 2020 hat who refused to be identified.

Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the North American Indian Center of Boston, hosted a Facebook Live event in Christopher Columbus Park. He said the statue is representative of “the state violence endured by Black and Indigenous peoples for over 500 years.” He said any attempt to restore the statue will be protested.

06/10/20

Boston Parks and Recreation employees prepare the beheaded statue of Christopher Columbus for storage. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

Bruno Giardiello, originally from Naples, said “people don’t know history.” Giardiello insisted the natives Columbus is blamed for killing didn’t die until after he left the land he conquered.

“At that time everyone was a killer,” he said, “and you conquered land for opportunity.” He pointed out that the British and the Dutch had also “massacred Indians,” but that landmarks commemorating those nationalities were not being removed. He wondered if a “limit on Thanksgiving” would be next.

Giardiello’s friend, Jose Hermoza, said he didn’t think the statue beheading had anything to do with the killing of George Floyd and the debate about racism in American society.

“Whoever did this doesn’t know what happened in 1492,” he said. “Columbus wasn’t a conqueror. He was an explorer.”

Hermoza, who is originally from Peru, said that his own country was conquered, but statues and other memorials aren’t desecrated there. “It’s like me coming and cutting the head of Pizarro,” he said in reference to the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro.

Across the park, a black man yelled, “Holy shit, someone knocked the head off Columbus! Where was the security?” The man, who didn’t want to be identified, said he has “Apache blood,” and that “people are taking it all out on a stone.”

A younger white man answered, “they should build a stone monument to the people Columbus killed.”

House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz, who represents the North End, said on Twitter that people should recognize that Columbus has a “complex history and symbolizes different things to different people.” He said the statue was placed in the park “as a celebration of Italian Heritage.”

Darien Alexander Williams, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posed for a photo in front of the statue. “I think it’s a heroic act of resistance,” he said. “Marginalized people, both black and brown, go through so many unconventional routes to address oppression that is valorized.”

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Originally from North Carolina, Williams likened the situation to the South’s Confederate statues that have been torn down or removed over the past few years. He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the beheading of Columbus happened during the George Floyd protests.

Native American and black history, he said, are intrinsically connected through persecution. Williams hopes the mayor will consider leaving the beheaded statue as is. “We shouldn’t pretend it wasn’t an important moment. Leaving as is could be a method of commemorating this resistance,” he said.