The statue of Christopher Columbus at the entrance to Tower Grove Park in the center of St. Louis has stood there for more than 130 years, silent as the grave.
But the controversy swirling around that towering figure has grown loud in the last couple of years, and now park officials have decided it’s time to do something.
Park administrators have set up a panel to “re-examine the historical context of the statue,” according to St. Louis Public Radio.
Members of the local Italian and Native American communities, historians, art experts, representatives from the National Park Service and city officials will participate in those discussions, expected to begin in September.
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After the deadly violence surrounding efforts to remove the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, “Columbus has been drawn into a national debate over which historical figures are worthy of celebration in parks and other public settings,” wrote USA Today in September.
The St. Louis statue has been vandalized over the last couple of years, covered in graffiti, “with its critics using red paint to write ‘murderer’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ on its base,” reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“As history changes, and the optics that we look at it change, some difficult conversations are taking place currently,” Bill Reininger, the executive director of Tower Grove Park, told St. Louis Public Radio. “Christopher Columbus is going to be one of those difficult conversations.”
Critics of the St. Louis statue have invited people to meet in the park on Saturday to give the topic a public airing. Proponents of its removal have set up a Facebook page “Plotting in the park for Columbus removal,” where the debate is passionate, with one person suggesting that people who want to remove the statue be hanged.
“This statue has been in place longer than most of you on this ‘committee’ have been alive. Leave it alone,” wrote one man.
“IT SHOULD STAY! Removing any statues is a total shame if it is history you can not change it by removing a statue that can not hurt anyone. Just plain stupid,” wrote one woman.
“Any thought to adding statues honoring indigenous peoples to the site (and keeping the current statue there) along with educational signs/plaques which discuss the relevant history?” suggested one man. “Simply removing these statues risks forgetting the history and repeating the egregious behavior of the past.”
It’s a conversation happening nationwide as communities that have Christopher Columbus statues and monuments try to decide, as Biography puts it, whether Columbus was a “hero or villain.”
“While many schoolbooks present Christopher Columbus as the famous Italian explorer who discovered America, history has painted a much more complicated picture,” writes Biography. “Was the man from Genoa a brave explorer or greedy invader? A gifted navigator or reckless adventurer?”
Chris Singer, who lives in the neighborhood and is leading the removal effort, sees a villain.
“When I see the statue it makes me disgusted that it’s here because that is what it’s doing. It’s not about history,” Singer told KSDK in St. Louis. “We don’t want it to be in a park glorifying somebody who had that sort of monstrous legacy attached to him.
“Christopher Columbus brought with him this legacy of racism and colonialism and frankly genocide for Native American people in this country.”
Fellow resident Josh Hafley doesn’t see the statue that way. “It has nothing to do with oppression,” Hafley told KSDK. “It’s commemorating Christopher Columbus and the things that he achieved.
“It has historical background to it, and it’s a nice statue in this park ... I think that there’s problems in our country that need to be solved, and taking that statue out of here isn’t a problem that needs to be solved today.”
St. Louis wouldn’t be the first to ditch Columbus. In January, city officials in San Jose, California, voted to remove a Columbus statue from the lobby of City Hall.
“I think everyone’s been twisting themselves into pretzels to avoid hurting people,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said after a heated public debate over the statue, according to The Mercury News.
“Let’s stop twisting ourselves. Let’s see if we can at last put this behind us and focus on what’s positive, and there’s a lot positive in our community to honor.”
No timeline was announced for the work of the new study commission, but the group is expected to make a recommendation about the statue’s destiny to the park’s board of commissioners, according to the Post-Dispatch.