Columbus statues in Columbus: Their legacy and future

This statue commemorating Christopher Columbus is located on the Ohio Statehouse grounds. Photo by Tyler Buchanan.

Standing in a light rain at City Hall, U.S. Sen. John Bricker marveled at the 20-foot bronze figure unveiled in a city which bears its likeness’ name. 

It reminded Bricker of the harbor in New York City. He predicted the new statue of Christopher Columbus would be viewed in Ohio as a “symbol of friendship,” akin to what the Statue of Liberty represented to the United States of America.

Bricker and others present at that 1955 unveiling did not foresee the cultural reckoning that was to come. Later the site of protests and controversy, that statue is now set to be taken down. 

The disputes over Columbus’ legacy predate the recent civil unrest. But these latest demonstrations against racism and police brutality have brought heightened scrutiny toward American symbolism and which figures are deserving of public praise in modern times.

Across the country, statues honoring Confederate figures from the Civil War have been removed by cities or toppled by protesters themselves. Also being reconsidered are statues commemorating Columbus, the navigator from centuries ago who is favorably remembered for his voyages across the Atlantic Ocean but is also vilified for his vicious treatment of native peoples at the places he traveled to.

Of the three Columbus statues erected in Ohio’s capital city, one has been removed in recent days and another — the one at City Hall — is set to follow. The oldest among them, located at the Ohio Statehouse, will soon be the only tribute remaining.

The efforts to honor Christopher Columbus came about many centuries after his death, ostensibly fueled in this country by a desire to honor the virtue of discovery. Municipal competition too played a role, as did a genuine eagerness to pay homage to citizens of Italian-American descent.

How these statues came to be

The first Columbus statue in America was built early in the nation’s history, during George Washington’s initial term as president.

It was constructed in Baltimore in 1792 — coinciding with the 300th anniversary of the famous voyage in 1492. It would stand as the only Columbus monument in the United States for the next half-century.

As the year 1892 approached, other cities wanted to build their own tributes recognizing the 400th anniversary. They competed to have the biggest and best statue.

This depiction of a St. Louis statue of Christopher Columbus appeared in various newspapers in 1892.

Newspapers joined in that competition. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed the Missouri city had the only Columbus statue in all of North America. That was demonstrably untrue, of course, but residents defended such a statement by critiquing statues located elsewhere.

“Christopher Columbus has but one statue on this continent, and that statue is in St. Louis,” a newspaper wire service reported in 1892. “There is a feeble attempt at a monument in Washington, but so poor is the work that it is ridiculed rather than admired.” 

Another statue built that year was in Columbus at the site of Pontifical College Josephinum, a Catholic seminary. This added a religious component to the commemoration, as the 1490s expeditions were supported by Queen Isabella of Spain, herself a Catholic monarch. Fittingly, the statue was made in Columbiana County, Ohio, which is also named for Columbus.

The Columbus fever died down a bit after the 400th anniversary, but he remained no less an important figure in American education.

In 1914, the Marion Daily Star newspaper published a “Special Feature Page” detailing all the ways in which he was honored throughout the world.

This full-page spread in the Marion Daily Star in 1914 highlighted the ways Christopher Columbus was honored around the world.

“Every child in America is taught early in his school days that Columbus discovered America,” the Daily Star reported. “This discovery was made more than 400 years ago, but it was not until a comparatively recent time that steps were taken to honor (Columbus).”

The page provides a brief biography of Columbus’ life. It is a mostly uncritical telling, though one sentence stands out in contrast: “Then Columbus suggested that the Indians be shipped to Spain and used as slaves, a blot on his character, which has never been wiped out.”

After listing statues erected in Spain, Panama, Chili, Cuba, The Bahamas and elsewhere, the page noted: “The United States, however, leads in memorials to the man who discovered our great and glorious land.”

Unmentioned in the Marion County spread is the presence of neighboring counties Wyandot and Delaware, both named for native tribes which had already been living in North America before Columbus took his first journey from Italy. Also unmentioned is the fact that Columbus never set foot on United States soil, but rather on numerous islands in the Caribbean.  

And even if he had, he would not have been the first to do so. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that “Vikings such as Leif Eriksson had visited North America five centuries earlier.”

Owing to the “disastrous impact of the slave trade and the ravages of imported disease on the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean region and the American continents,” the encyclopedia reads, “(t)he sense of triumph has diminished accordingly, and the view of Columbus as hero has now been replaced, for many, by one of a man deeply flawed.”

Honoring Columbus in Columbus

In 1932, the Josephinum seminary donated its Columbus statue to the state of Ohio. It was relocated to the Ohio Statehouse grounds and annual Columbus Day celebrations were held there for the next two decades. 

Columbus Mayor James Rhodes announced a new fundraising campaign in 1945 to construct a new statue for the city. Rhodes had visions of a “heroic” statue at least 14 feet tall that would serve as a “true likeness of America’s discoverer.”

It took a few years for those plans to take shape. Then on Columbus Day in 1952 came this report from the International News Service: “Christopher Columbus, will sail from Genoa, Italy soon, heading west for the New World. This news item, datelined 1952 and not 1492, refers to a statue of the gentleman which the city of Genoa, his birthplace, has offered to the city of Columbus, his namesake.”

The statue was completed in 1955. A news crew from WBNS-TV traveled to Genoa to film a documentary about Columbus’ native city and returned to America alongside the statue. 

Once the bronze Columbus crossed the ocean, he had a difficult time getting to Ohio. The Associated Press reported the Pennsylvania Railroad “went to considerable trouble, and expense, in decorating a special baggage car to transport this city’s new Christopher Columbus statue from New York to Columbus.” 

The statue was unveiled in October 1955 to cap off a four-day celebration of that year’s Columbus Day. Around 100,000 people came to town for the unveiling and a subsequent parade through the city. A highlight of the event was a reenactment of Columbus’ voyage, with three rubber rafts racing on the Scioto River — representing the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. 

“It was almost as if Christopher Columbus had been reborn,” the Associated Press reported. “For there, standing magnificently under a stream of floodlights was a 16,000-pound bronze likeness of the famed navigator, explorer and discoverer of America.”

The unveiling featured a number of Italian and American dignitaries, including the sculptor, Edoardo Alfieri, and Genoa Deputy Mayor Guiseppe DeAndre. 

“Though Columbus’ audacity widened the horizon to man’s future, the hope that inspired him has not been fulfilled,” DeAndre said in a speech. “Mankind is still dominated by egoism, divided by narrow nationalism, interested only in material progress … indeed, they have not followed Columbus’ route that pointed to an ideal harbor.

“By this statue,” DeAndre continued, “we Genoese would like to express our deep faith in Columbus’ route. We, too, aim at relentless progress not only for practical achievements, but also in the desire to reach the safe harbor and general peace.”

Like Sen. Bricker, DeAndre believed the statue would shine a light on the “historical bonds of friendship which tie together the American and the Italian peoples.” 

The city of Columbus tried to repay the favor. Local students prepared a series of scrapbooks to send back to Genoa’s schools, and there was also a contest to design a memorial to be built in the Italian city. The winning design, chosen in 1959, was of three metal shafts representing the masts of Columbus’ three ships. It proved to be an unpopular selection.

This winning design for a Columbus dedication in Genoa was published in Ohio newspapers in 1959.

“There have been uncomplimentary remarks in some quarters,” one newspaper reported. 

The City Hall statue attracted a few more headlines in the late 1970s. In 1977, thousands of employees working in the State Office Tower were evacuated due to a bomb threat. Police found sticks of dynamite at the base of the statue, but they weren’t fused and no injuries were reported. A few years later, a time capsule was discovered during routine maintenance work.

A decade later came the third Columbus statue in town. It was first installed at an Illinois park in 1959, and in 1988 was moved to the campus of Columbus State Community College. 

Two statues are removed 

The newest statue was the first to go. Amid protests and repeated acts of vandalism, the college decided on June 16 to have it removed. 

“The removal of the Christopher Columbus statue is a symbolic gesture of our commitment to our College and in our community to continue and accelerate the fight against systemic racism,” said Columbus State President David Harrison in a statement. 

Two days later, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther announced the city would be removing the statue at City Hall. WOSU reported the statue will be placed in storage.  

That leaves the oldest of the three still remaining. A century after being first built, the statue was rededicated at the Ohio Statehouse grounds in 1992 — the 500th anniversary. It was placed atop a new base, with an inscription championing “the spirit of discovery.”

The base also states that Columbus “shattered the boundaries of the Western World” and that “(m)odern history has been shaped by one man’s courage to pursue a dream.”

The fate of this statue rests with the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board. The board is chaired by Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and includes several state lawmakers and others representing the Ohio History Connection, the Ohio Arts Council, the governor’s office and “the public-at-large.” 

The next meeting is set for July 16. Laura Battocletti, the advisory board’s executive director, told Cleveland.com that members will likely discuss the future of the Statehouse statue. 

Near the statue’s base, an arrow was recently written in chalk along with three words outlining what critics want to see happen.

“Tear It Down.”