This past summer, public debates have raged over whether or not to tear down Confederate monuments, most of which were constructed during an upsurge of white support for policies of segregation in the early twentieth century. White supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia to seek the preservation of the Robert E. Lee statute, which was dedicated in 1924. Debates have recently emerged over what to do regarding the controversial Frank Rizzo statue in front of the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia. But what about Philadelphia’s recognition of Columbus Day, the avenue that was named after Columbus in 1992, and the statue of Columbus in Marconi Square?
In 1992, Berkeley, California voted to recognize Indigenous People’s Day in place of Columbus Day. Since then, other cities have followed suit including Minneapolis (2014), Portland (2015), Denver and Phoenix (2016), and most recently, Los Angeles just this summer.
Given the cataclysmic change that Columbus’s voyages brought to Native people in the Western Hemisphere (listen to Lenape leader Rev. John Norwood’s lecture in audio file below), why is Columbus still uncritically embraced as a civic hero by local and federal governments? Is Columbus really the best exemplar of Italian American identity? Would replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day advance the cause for justice for Native Americans today or would it only be a symbolic gesture? What are the best ways for communities to engage in dialogue over contested meanings? How can marginalized groups have a voice in public conversations about civic symbols?
These are just some questions that relate to the ethics of commemorating Christopher Columbus through monuments and holidays. The rising public interest this summer in talking about the meaning of monuments suggests that the time is right to advance a public conversation in Philadelphia about the meaning of Columbus Day. I’m proposing a public forum to be held on Columbus Day, October 9, 2017 at Arch Street United Methodist Church 55 N. Broad Street. I’m in the midst of negotiating with a number of stakeholders in this conversation. Please reach out to me if you can suggest participants or have suggestions for methods for advancing a productive conversation about this topic. I encourage you to listen to Rev. Norwood’s lecture below and the ensuing conversation about the ethics of Columbus Day.
***Here is more about the forum in 2015. Approximately 50 people were in attendance.