NOEL KING, HOST:
Statues of Christopher Columbus are being dismantled, torn down or removed in cities across this country, including one in an American city named for him. Here's Paige Pfleger from WOSU.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION SITE)
PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: This city once had three Christopher Columbus statues. It is Columbus, Ohio, after all. Construction crews recently dismantled a marble statue on the campus of Columbus State Community College, loading it piece by piece onto a flatbed truck to be put into storage. A small Columbus statue still stands on the lawn of the Statehouse. And there's a third, by far the most imposing one, a more-than-20-foot-tall mixed-metal Christopher Columbus draped in robes, towering over City Hall.
ELIZABETH BROWN: The celebration of Christopher Columbus, really, I think, holds us back in moving forward on racial justice issues.
PFLEGER: Elizabeth Brown is a Columbus City Council member.
BROWN: We have to recognize that symbols matter, and this giant symbol on City Hall's front lawn just doesn't make sense.
PFLEGER: Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther says the City Hall statue will be taken down, too. He calls for a review of all public art, including the city's seal and flag, which show the ship the Santa Maria.
ANDREW GINTHER: The people of Columbus have been very clear about what kind of community they want to live in - one that is diverse, inclusive. And we will be able to define our community that way, not based on history and statues.
PFLEGER: Some people think removing the statue goes too far. Many in the Italian community accuse the mayor of sweeping their heritage under the rug. Joseph V. Scelsa runs the Italian American Museum in New York City and argues the statues are being used as political pawns to placate those asking for systemic change.
JOSEPH V SCELSA: Racism is the sin of the Americas. There's no question about that. And he's become a convenient target for people to vent out their frustration.
PFLEGER: He says cities can remove the statues all they want, but they won't be able to erase Columbus completely. There are countless schools, universities, streets and cities named after him. Columbus resident Shelly Corbin is part of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. For her, Christopher Columbus represents violence against all people of color. She credits the size and momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement for focusing on the statue's symbolism.
SHELLY CORBIN: The Indigenous communities are very small. And so the Black Lives Matter movement's happening, and we can align, and we can support, and we can stand in solidarity and say, hey, we're fighting the same fight.
PFLEGER: But it's much easier to change symbols than it is to make meaningful structural changes. Columbus has a high infant mortality rate for Black babies, more COVID-19 cases in Black communities and the highest number of police shootings of Black residents of any city in Ohio. Jasmine Ayres (ph), a community organizer, says removing statues won't address those problems. But despite all they represent, Ayres is still attached to the name Columbus.
JASMINE AYRES: The people here are nice. Like, they will pull over on the side of the road and help you change your tire. And so I think I associate the people with the name and not Christopher Columbus.
PFLEGER: She says some residents will continue to try to turn the concept of Columbus on its head by resettling refugees, celebrating Black culture and continuing to push for reforms throughout the city.
For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Columbus.
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