By James J. Divita
THE ORIGINAL CHARGE
Indianapolis Monthly on July 24, 2020 ran an article by Richard S. McCoy, founding executive director of Landmark Columbus Foundation, which celebrates the cultural heritage of Columbus, Indiana. McCoy’s article, entitled “Why Indianapolis Must Re-Think Its Public Art. Now,” proposes removal of the Columbus monument near the Statehouse and the William Henry Harrison statue on Monument Circle. His reasons for removal include updating our public spaces by ascertaining what and who is significant in contemporary opinion and reducing the stress on military history in our city.
WISHTV8 and IndyStar carried news in July (the same month as publication of the McCoy article) that the precinct personnel of City-County Council District 12 (east of downtown along Washington Street, with a population one-quarter Hispanic) had elected Jason Larrison to this vacant seat. Larrison grew up in Columbus, Indiana, worked for the State and City, and was chosen with a majority of one over an Hispanic woman candidate.
The new councillor presented a petition to change the name of October 12 from Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” and proposed that the Columbus bust/monument erected in 1920 be removed because it was up long enough and was an affront to Indian passersby. TV reporter Richard Essex claimed that “a group of Italian immigrants who lived in Indianapolis paid for the bust and pedestal” and “it is difficult for many native Americans to see on the lawn of the State House.”
THE LONG HISTORY OF COLUMBUS IN AMERICA
This Italian navigator (1451-1506), born in Genoa, was considered historically significant as the European discoverer of America in 1492 and the one, sailing for Spain, who first opened the New World to European economic development and settlement. So he personally related to all of us whose immigrant ancestors carried their civilization and religion to this continent. Furthermore, he named the natives he met “Indians” because he mistakenly thought he was sailing off the coast of India; yet the name remained commonly used until the end of the 20th century because the Indians had tribal names but no overall or generic name.
The Spanish and Portuguese called what we know as South America after another Italian navigator/merchant Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512). The English, who established the Thirteen Colonies in North America between 1607 and 1732, referred to their colonists as Americans.
The English colonies separated from mother country in the American Revolution (1775-1783) and discussed an official name for the newly independent entity in the Continental Congress. One side wanted to continue the traditional name of America, the other side wanted to adopt a new name like Columbia after the Great Discoverer. Benjamin Franklin proposed a compromise. In the Declaration of Independence (1776) Thomas Jefferson had called the thirteen “the united States of America.” So why not call the new country “United States of America”?
Despite the compromise, the name “Columbia” remained popular throughout the 19th century. In 1784 King’s College in New York City was renamed Columbia. In 1792 the major river flowing into the Pacific was named Columbia. In the same year, the tercentenary of the Discovery, the earliest American monument to Columbus was erected in Baltimore. The Constitution provided for a federal land reserve along the banks of the Potomac River. After 1802 the city of Washington was officially located in a Territory or District of Columbia.
The first unofficial national anthem was entitled “Hail Columbia, happy land!” (music 1789, lyrics 1798)
Hail Columbia, happy land! Hail ye heroes, heav’n-born land,
Who fought and bled in freedom’s cause . . .
Early patriotic songs like “My Country tis of Thee” and “Star Spangled Banner” were usually British melodies with rewordings of British lyrics. In 1843 an English immigrant named Becket arrived in Philadelphia and republished a British original. It became “Columbia, the gem of the Ocean.”
O Columbia! The gem of the ocean, The home of the brave and the free, The shrine of each patriot’s devotion, A world offers homage to thee.
Thy mandates make heroes assemble, When liberty’s form stands in view; Thy Banners make tyranny tremble, When born by the red, white and blue.
This second unofficial anthem was widely played and sung during the Civil War and thereafter until in 1931 Congress adopted “Star Spangled Banner” as the official national anthem.
Among American cities, 23 bear the name Columbus and 29 are called Columbia. They are found in almost every state. Among them are:
Columbia, SC 1786 Columbus, IN 1821
Columbia, TN 1807 Columbus, GA 1827
Columbus, OH 1812 Columbia City, IN 1834
Columbia, MO 1821 Columbus, NE 1856
Many towns and cities have streets named Columbus or Columbia.
Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus was published in 1828 and reprinted in 1902. This popular book collected the romantic stories, legends, and myths about the Discoverer.
In 1866 Italian immigrants in New York City publicly observed the Columbus anniversary for the first time. Italians were not particularly appreciated in these decades – their shortcomings stressed by the broader public. In the New Orleans of 1891, 11 Italians were charged with murdering the police chief, indicted, acquitted, but returned to jail. After an angry mob sprung them from jail, all were lynched. President Benjamin Harrison did nothing about this injustice, but claimed it was a Louisiana matter.
Then in 1892 Harrison called for a national holiday to accompany the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing and the impressive World’s Columbian Exposition on Chicago’s south side held in the following year. Harrison also proposed that the flag fly over every schoolhouse and the children recite the newly composed Pledge of Allegiance.
“On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.”
The first state to observe Columbus Day was Colorado in 1906. Two years later In Indiana the Knights of Columbus urged the introduction of Columbus Day on October 12. The Knights are a charitable, fraternal, and insurance association founded in 1882 which developed into the largest Catholic lay organization in the United States.
Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a national holiday in the 1930s. Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1966, a century after the New York observance.
INDIANA, COLUMBUS, and ITALIANS
In the era between the Columbian Exposition and the outbreak of World War II, over 60 monuments in over 20 states were erected to Columbus. Sponsors were frequently Italian immigrants and Italian-American societies which bridged Italy and America, the old country with the new country, in the person and spirit of the Discoverer.
Some projected monuments were supported by the Knights of Columbus. The major opposition to honoring Columbus came from the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s: these hooded individuals viewed statues and plaques erected by foreigners, immigrants, and Catholics as challenges to white supremacy and the American way of life.
The Indiana monument to Columbus at Indianapolis, composed of a bust, granite pedestal, and plaque, was dedicated on the south west side of Statehouse grounds on October 31, 1920. Marion County judge James A. Collins was major speaker. Sculptor and mechanic Enrico (Harry) Vittori, native of Siena, studied at the Florence Academy of Art, and migrated from Torino to the United States with special permission to work as an airplane mechanic in 1918. He settled in the Hoosier capital soon after and worked for Indianapolis Statuary Co. where he created Columbus’s bust for the monument.
Vincent A. LaPenta, M.D., future Italian honorary consul for Indiana, chaired the project. It was financed through donations from Italian immigrant businessmen, coalminers, factory workers, railroaders, and banana kings resident in Indianapolis, Kokomo, Logansport, Richmond, etc. Gov. James P. Goodrich approved the erection of the Columbus bust, first foreign monument ever erected at the Statehouse. Shortly afterwards the Klan gained control of the state legislature and city council as well as the governor and mayor’s offices. In 1924 Congress approved an immigration quota system which lasted to 1965.
A plaque was affixed to the pedestal denoting the significance of Columbus’ discovery.
This land of opportunity and freedom was thus preserved for humanity by the perennial genius abiding in the Italian race.
The Knights of Columbus renovated the Columbus bust/monument in 1956. They repeated this 1920 wording on their plaque.
The last renovation was in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the Discovery. The Columbus ’92 Commission, an Italian-American organization, in cooperation with the Holy Rosary Parish Council, and the Knights of Columbus, were co-sponsors of a dinner-dance at downtown Indiana Roof; Mass in Holy Rosary Italian Catholic Church; and a short program at the Columbus bust attended by Susan Bayh, wife of the governor. Paul “Jerry” Roland, former state legislator, and Pietro Ferri chaired the project for the Columbus Commission. A series of six videos on Columbus produced by Public Broadcasting System was shown at Marian College.
The latest plaque proclaims
The Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission of Indiana Inc., in behalf of Indiana’s Italian-American Community dedicates this plaque to the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Columbus discovery of America. May the genius abiding in the Italian race encourage tolerance and acceptance of all cultures as America’s ultimate contribution to humanity.
The Italian Heritage Society of Indiana, founded in 1993, is an outgrowth of the Columbus Commission. It does not normally sponsor parades or programs at the bust, but marks historical anniversaries with St. Joseph’s Table; the Mass and Picnic, Italian POW Chapel, Camp Atterbury; and a major annual banquet to mark Columbus Day.
DECLINE OF COLUMBUS AND WESTERN CIVILIZATION
Columbus became a controversial historical character in the 1970s. American military activity in Asia and the Mideast, nationalism, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the rise of an Indian consciousness encouraged a reevaluation of the historical role and values of American society. Criticism of national shortcomings and excessive self-interest affected historical scholarship and the popular mind.
In 2020 racial tension after questionable police action with African-Americans led to national protests, vandalism, and the destruction of monuments. Many were of Confederate heroes, but some were mindless destructions (for example, President Theodore Roosevelt, Franciscan missionary St. Junipero Serra, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass).
Several Columbus monuments, some specifically erected by Italian immigrants and their descendants in Italian-American neighborhoods, were destroyed by vandals or removed by fearful local governments.
The challenge to Columbus accompanies the reduced respect for the achievements and institutions of Western Civilization. The role and judgment of police, the press, politicians, teachers, military, clergy, spouses, medical doctors, even the president of the United States are among those berated. The integrity, honesty, fairness, and professionalism of these groups have been questioned like never before.
Freelance writers are interested in the marketable topic which ignores reliable history written and reviewed by historians. Popularly attractive articles appear in magazines or paperbacks and influence a public which has little experience with classroom and scholarly history.
Summer 2020 events show little meaning given to the past and its monuments in an atmosphere of red paint poured over Columbus’ head; or destruction of monuments takes second place to looting retail stores, burning cop cars, or encouraging heavily armed men to “protect police” or to cite a First Amendment right of freedom of speech to wreck a monument.
To evaluate the presence of monuments based on their erection dates is strange. Usually they reflect the perspective of a previous generation on the significance or symbolism of an historical character or situation. Public monuments which wear out might be moved to museums, halls, or churches, but never destroyed. Whoever accepted a monument has a moral obligation to preserve it.
We read here that the name of Columbus has been used respectfully in this country for several centuries. Have all those who came before us been wrong? Seldom has any significant historical figure been an example of perfection. For us to sit in judgment is arrogant.
The Columbus bust reminds the viewer of the Italian presence in this state and the acceptance of immigrants in local society –at least after a time. The plaques emphasize Italian genius during a time of begrudging acceptance of newcomers, and finally tolerance of their presence and contribution. That is, if you willingly walk to the bust’s inconvenient location to inspect bust and peruse plaques.
Our decade in the 21st century appears to be a time to emphasize racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity in our country. Removal of the Columbus bust is contrary to the needs of today to stabilize society. Emotional reaction to historical characters and situations needs to be reduced, and objective study to understand the monument is appropriate before any serious change. Look at contemporary problems.
It is said that Indians passing the Columbus bust recall his mistreatment of their ancestors and are saddened. Are they aware this state is Indiana since 1816 and the city is Indianapolis since 1821?
Two charges against Columbus are so common that they must be dealt with here before we close. The overall issue is Columbus and slavery. Are we talking about serfdom, the encomienda system, or true slavery? Are we talking about the United States?
The Discoverer never saw what is today the United States; he charted Caribbean islands and the coasts of Central and South America. He died a poor, disappointed man in 1506. Queen Isabella, who authorized his voyages, disapproved of slavery in Spanish colonies in his day. Spanish attempts to organize the Taino people as an efficient work force postdate 1516, a decade after the Discoverer died. What about African slavery? It was introduced into Virginia on a Dutch ship in 1619, over 100 years after the Discoverer’s death.
This historian is opposed to the removal of the Columbus bust from where it has stood as an Italian-American monument for 100 years.
Tutti Santi / All Saints Day, November 1, 2020
Divita, son of an Italian immigrant who arrived in 1902
Ph.D., University of Chicago 1972
Retired history professor, Marian College (now university) 1961-2003
Italian Heritage Society of Indiana, past president and life member