Mall-goers visiting Turnstyle at the Columbus Circle train station in Manhattan had a little extra company this past week ahead of Columbus Day.
Barricades cordoned off the base of the circle’s statue, with the New York Police Department providing a 24-hour security detail as if Columbus himself were staying there.
The threat wasn’t from terrorists, however. Instead, it’s a much different movement created in part by the national conversation over statues honoring Confederate soldiers and generals like Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee. As some of those vestiges of the Civil War became history, activists have turned their attention to others with a not-so-squeaky clean history like Christopher Columbus, the 15th century Italian credited as one of the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Columbus is a polarizing figure for many in the city, and — apparently — in the northwest Bronx as well.
Take Robert Geraci, for example. He’s a professor in Manhattan College’s religious studies department who last month submitted a proposal to the college’s senate arguing the Catholic school should stop celebrating Columbus Day.
The reason, Geraci said, is not only to get rid of an extra day off from school for students, but also to stop honoring a man whose legacy, he says, is “horrific.”
“Columbus Day presents a genuine ethical dilemma due to the tremendous unease the holiday rightly causes students of Central and South American descent,” Geraci said in the proposal. “Christopher Columbus does not deserve a day named in his honor, and it certainly shouldn’t be celebrated by a Lasallian school.”
Columbus’ legacy often is shrouded in misconceptions. Most folks likely recognize him as the person who “discovered” the Americas while convincing the world the Earth was round, and not flat as previously thought in, well you know, 1492, when he “sailed the ocean blue.”
Except that story, according to many historians, not only was taken out of context, it’s largely untrue. By the late 15th century, many historians agree any educated European already believed the Earth was round, and that Columbus’ main achievement was proving that anyone could sail around it.
After several failed trips, Columbus finally arrived in the Caribbean — though he thought he was in India — and began setting up Spanish colonies, where he developed a reputation as a brutal killer and enslaver of the native peoples of those islands. In fact, according to some historians, within a decade of his arrival, he sent nearly 1,500 people to Europe to be sold as slaves, and routinely killed large groups of natives on charges they were cannibals.
That legacy, however, hasn’t stopped large groups of Italian-Americans from defending Columbus, who was born in Genoa in modern-day Italy, as a great symbol of pride.
Like Ryan Quattromani, a senior at Manhattan College who countered Geraci’s proposal before the college’s senate.
In his proposal, Quattromani argues that Columbus Day is “patriotic,” and is widely cherished by Italian-Americans.
“Columbus Day is the only day on which the nation particularly recognizes the heritage of an estimated 26 million Italian-Americans,” he said. “Columbus Day celebrates a global cultural exchange between America and Europe.”
But there was no victor at this particular debate. In fact, Manhattan College’s senate hardly heard a word on Sept. 19 after members of the organization — made up mostly of admnistrators, students and faculty — tabled the discussion until this coming Tuesday, a full week after Columbus Day.
Then again, that was better than one attempt, according to a source who attended the meeting, but asked to remain unidentified, to postpone the Columbus Day debate “indefinitely.”
After the meeting, Geraci said he was shocked at exactly how antagonistic the response to his proposal was — both by people who loved Columbus as a historical figure, and some who just didn’t want to lose the extra three-day weekend.
Columbus’ legacy in New York has been a major point of debate for the past several months, starting with a commission by Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s office for a “90-day review of all symbols of hate on city property.”
One of the top items up for review, the mayor said in August, was the statue of Columbus on West 59th Street. The issue even made its way to the mayoral election as a sour point between de Blasio and his primary opponent, Sal Albanese, an Italian-American who fiercely defended Columbus as a national hero.
De Blasio, on the other hand, has chosen instead to defer his opinion until the final results of his commission are released. But his lack of enthusiasm has rallied some of his opponents, and lost him some support among Italian-Americans in the Bronx.
The mayor was even disinvited to last Sunday’s Columbus Day celebration in the Bronx, in which he had marched in 2015. de Blasio was, however, seen marching along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on Monday morning to the tune of boos from the audience.
While the debate rages on in New York, some of the nations other major cities already have made decisions on celebrating Columbus. Like in Los Angeles, where earlier this year lawmakers officially changed the holiday to “Indigenous People’s Day,” joining Portland, Oregon, and Maine.
The fate of Columbus’s legacy in New York and the United States as a whole remains unclear, but it’s almost certain this discussion isn’t going away just because the second Monday in October has passed.
CORRECTION: • The Manhattan College senate does not include any of the college’s board trustees. A story in the Oct. 12 edition stated otherwise.