Syracuse, N.Y. — After two months of weekly meetings, the group appointed by Mayor Ben Walsh to chart a course on the future of the Columbus statue reached a deadlock on its most pressing assignment.
While the members agreed to remove the Indigenous heads from the Columbus monument and the bas relief plaques, they could not agree on whether the 11-foot statue of the Italian explorer should stay or go.
That decision ultimately fell to Walsh alone, who decided last week to remove the statue and rename Columbus Circle.
In the end, the 25-person action group was unable to settle on a common set of historical facts about Christopher Columbus. They shared conflicting accounts of his intent when he set sail for the Americas more than 500 years ago, and his culpability for the enslavement of African and Indigenous people that followed his arrival in the New World.
“These different understandings and viewpoints of history made it very difficult for civil and forward-moving conversations to occur within the CCAC meetings,” the committee wrote in a final report submitted to Walsh.
Walsh had tasked them with developing “common ground” recommendations for the statue. They offered five of those, which included establishing a heritage and education site at the circle and removing the heads of Indigenous people and the plaques titled “Columbus bringing Christianity to the New World” and “Columbus returning to Queen Isabella’s Court.”
“No matter what else happens to the monument, the Committee agrees that action on these modifications would be a symbol of good faith towards the healing of historical wounds,” the report says.
The committee’s 14-page report echoes the deep divide within the community on whether the prominent statue should stay or go, and the passionate feelings on all sides of the debate.
Those advocating to keep the statue described the committee’s outcome as a “hung jury” in a separate report submitted to Walsh. They said no one’s position changed on the statue during the course of deliberation, though everyone gained a greater understanding of their peers’ perspectives.
The committee’s report acknowledges that a majority of members wanted the statue removed. Several Italian-American members of the group argued the committee was stacked from the beginning to favor that outcome.
“The removal of the Columbus statue atop the monument is seen by many of the Committee members as a necessary step for our community in terms of recognition of the tragic outcomes of the Columbus voyages for indigenous peoples, and for the opening of the slave trade as the economic basis for the U.S. success as a world power…” the report reads. “This portion of the Committee is adamant that positive regard for the Italian American community and to their contributions to the life, culture, and building of the city of Syracuse should not be confused with the removal of the statue.”
The report concludes by offering five scenarios for the future of Columbus Circle. Each scenario comes with pros and cons. Walsh’s plan for the circle borrows pieces from several of those scenarios.
Two of the five scenarios call for removing the statue and other pieces of the monument.
One scenario included removing the statue but keeping the obelisk as tribute to Italian-Americans. The committee suggested erecting a statue of another important Italian, such as Bank of America founder Amadeo Giannini, famed automotive CEO Lee Iacocca or Dr. Goffredo Gensini, a highly regarded cardiovascular doctor in Syracuse.
Another option suggested leaving the statue as a reminder of the pain Columbus caused and forcing the community to “confront our history through education.” That option didn’t get much traction with the committee, but was included anyway.
Still another recommended lowering the Columbus statue off the obelisk on which it sits and adding statues representing other cultural and ethnic groups at ground level. One of the issues committee members had identified with the statue was that it represented power and dominance. Putting Columbus on a level field with other cultural figures could assuage those concerns, the report said.
But creating a series of other 11-foot statues would be burdensome and expensive, and it would not placate the people who feel aggrieved by the celebration of Columbus.
The report concluded on a hopeful note:
“Many on the Committee believes that done properly, this initiative in Syracuse could become an example for communities all over the country who are struggling with the same conundrum,” it reads. “Syracuse could model how to preserve history while at the same time addressing modern realities.”
Read the report and an addendum submitted by several pro-statue members below: