Statues are coming down across the nation, and it has not been pretty. Taking down the statue in Wooster Square in New Haven the other day — where it had been for more than 125 years — provoked a clash of protesters. Christopher Columbus is a focal point of Italian-American pride, and 125 years is a long time of focus. A comment from a woman who had grown up in New Haven, quoted in the Connecticut Mirror, summed up the distress:
“I’m upset that they’re taking down this statue of Christopher Columbus,” said Rose Monaco. “Good, bad, or indifferent, this is part of my heritage, this is part of the history, and I feel as though they’re taking away all history.”
The contention over Columbus is not new, and has been brewing over many years. The “discoverer” of America has become a symbol of aggression who, as one article put it, “opened the Americas to European domination.”
In Connecticut, Columbus statues in Middletown and New London have also been taken down, and there are plans to remove one in Hartford.
A statue of Columbus in front of the John Weichsel Municipal Center in Southington has been a source of controversy since it went up, and now the town’s leaders want to hear what residents think about it at a public hearing next month.
It’s important to pause for a moment and applaud this development in Southington. This is a divisive issue, and as difficult as it may be, it’s important to bring it out in the open and let residents have their say. Let the sunshine in, as we like to say in journalism.
“We’ve received a lot of communication from the public,” Chris Palmieri, a Democrat and Town Council minority leader, said. “It’s not unique to our community. I think it’s important to offer the public an opportunity to speak for or against the statue.”
Columbus is hardly the only symbol of discomfort over the nation’s history. Statues of Confederates are also going down and there’s a move to rename military bases named for them as well. You can see it as a long overdue reckoning with the nation’s past.
The question is: What is the best way to reckon with it? And answering that question has not been easy, nor will it be.
As Columbus Day was approaching in 2018, the Journal Inquirer, of Manchester, had a story about a statue in Windsor of John Mason, an English settler who had helped found Windsor, Old Saybrook and Norwich. So far, so good. But Mason had also led a night raid in 1637 that wiped out the Pequot Tribe.
As I mentioned in a column at the time, we no longer consider that worth honoring, but “had he not done so we might all not be here.”
“Ours is a great nation, indeed,” I wrote, “but built at the expense of other peoples. We do ourselves no favors by ignoring it.”
As the JI reported at the time, students from Central Connecticut State University were given the opportunity to explore the Mason statue as a teachable moment, as educators like to say, or, in this case, a teachable monument, and offer input about what might be added to acknowledge Mason’s actions during the Pequot War. One student noted the importance of teaching the “whole story.”
That approach could serve Southington well as it deliberates over the Columbus statue. My column in 2018 includes a quote by Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of Alabama: “By taking monuments down or hiding them away, we facilitate forgetting. There is value in owning our history.”
A museum, or a museum-like setting, is the best available alternative. Such a setting helps communicate the distinction between the importance of remembering, and honoring. It also retains an important message, which is that our nation’s history is complicated.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or email@example.com