BOSTON – Generations of Italian Americans embraced Christopher Columbus with little thought to the dark side of his legacy. But as the nation grapples with racial injustice, that ship may have sailed.
Now, some Italian Americans in Massachusetts are publicly casting the explorer as a symbol of white supremacy who touched off centuries of European oppression and the decimation of indigenous peoples.
It’s time, they say, to permanently ditch a statue of Columbus near Boston's historic North End neighborhood which was recently vandalized and temporarily removed from its pedestal by the city.
“There has always been the feeling that Italian Americans all feel the same way about Columbus,” said Heather Leavell, 46, of Bedford, one of the founders of the group Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples' Day.
“Our country prioritizes the comfort of Italian Americans and how we are going to feel about this instead of centering the voices of native American people," she said in an interview.
The group was formed about a year ago to help push for passage of a bill at the Massachusetts Statehouse that would rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. Leavell said the group has drawn support from across the country, including from others of Italian descent.
“Our parents have told us stories about the level of discrimination they faced and the fear that what was worked so hard for might be lost, but this is not unique to Italians, being discriminated against,” said Leavell, whose mother is of Italian descent. “We unfortunately allied ourselves with a white supremacist in our attempts to be recognized in this country.”
The most recent attack on the statue came last week when it was discovered with its head removed. The statue was placed in storage and Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh said the city is reassessing its significance.
Once heralded as the discoverer of America in 1492, the legacy of Columbus has undergone greater scrutiny in recent decades.
Columbus’ sailing expeditions are now seen by many as opening the door to the European conquest of Native American peoples and the establishment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
By then, older generations of Italian Americans — including many in the traditionally Italian-American neighborhood of the North End — had adopted Columbus as a cultural hero. In 1979, the statue was erected as part of Christopher Columbus park on the city’s waterfront next to the North End.
Eventually the statue drew the ire of critics, who viewed it as memorializing European genocide of indigenous peoples. In more recent years, it became the frequent target of vandalism. In 2006, the statue's head was knocked off.
For some, however — including Francis Mazzaglia of the group the Italian American Alliance — the destruction leveled at the Columbus statue amounts to a hate crime against Italian Americans.
The former professor of business and criminology said it’s unfair to lay the slave trade and the diseases brought in from European explorers that ravaged native peoples all at the feet of Columbus or to portray that as genocide.
“The people who are opposed to Christopher Columbus and his statue, they are sincere in what they are saying,” said Mazzaglia, 80. ”But you can be sincere and wrong at the same time.
Mazzaglia said if the city removes the statue, he hopes to find a place for it on private property, perhaps in the North End.
“To destroy a symbol that is so important to Italian-American people is not OK,” he said.
Not all Italian Americans agree.
Corrie Popp, a 46-year-old high school English teacher and Waltham resident, said many younger Italian Americans are ready to dump Columbus.
“Most Italian Americans are big-hearted people,” said Popp, whose mother is of Italian descent. “But Columbus can’t represent us as Italian Americans anymore.”
There have been suggestions of other historic Italian American figures who could take the place of Columbus, including Italian immigrants and avowed anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were executed in Boston amid fierce anti-immigrant sentiment after one of the most notorious criminal cases of the 20th century.
Popp said she understands how it may be difficult for older Italian Americans to abandon figures like Columbus, but said the hurt feelings of some Italian Americans can't be placed about the need to acknowledge the legacy of indigenous peoples.
“It’s a bigger question than just the North End,” she said.