After protesters toppled a towering statue of Christopher Columbus and dumped it into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a group of Italian Americans organized to fish the marble chunks out of the water.
They moved what was left of the statue to a private warehouse for “safekeeping,” far from the piazza where it stood for more than three decades. The group is working now to restore it to its original form.
Even so, city officials are not expected to take it back.
The city’s Recreation and Parks director signed a termination agreement reverting ownership of the statue to Italian American Organizations United Inc., the group that gave it to Baltimore in 1984. The agreement needs the approval of the Board of Estimates, which on Wednesday deferred by two weeks a scheduled vote on the item after members indicated they hadn’t been briefed on the matter.
According to the agreement, city officials believe the statue has artistic and historical significance and should be protected and preserved. But, they wrote, “public display on city property may not best serve those ends.”
Cities across America have been reckoning in recent years with whom they choose to honor and why. Baltimore removed its four Confederate-era monuments three years ago, and some believe monuments dedicated to Columbus should come down, too.
The 15th-century Italian explorer long has been credited in classrooms as a hero who discovered America, but he violently enslaved native people. The Baltimore protesters who tore down his statue on July 4 said they were demanding the removal of all monuments “honoring white supremacists, owners of enslaved people, perpetrators of genocide, and colonizers.”
Bill Martin, an officer of Italian American Organizations United, said he understands people’s views on Columbus have shifted.
For him, the statue is about honoring Italian American history locally. He said Columbus was a figure that Italian immigrants could look up to when they moved to America to start a new life. That was why it was important to him and others to “rescue” the statue from the harbor and raise money to restore it.
Martin said the statue pieces are in a secure location, away from Little Italy. He declined to be more specific.
His group hopes one day the monument will be displayed publicly again — but Martin was not ready to discuss options yet. First, it is raising money to pay for an estimated $60,000 to $65,000 in repair costs.
The original agreement between the Italian American organization and the city required Baltimore to maintain the statue and pay for any repairs. It was signed in 1985 by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat.
John Pica, a former Democratic state senator who leads the group, said he knows it would be difficult for the cash-strapped city to take on the restoration. The termination agreement releases it from that responsibility.
“We told the city that we’ll do it, if they give us the statue,” he said. “It didn’t take much to get that done.”
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He and others have been in discussion with city officials about what should replace the Columbus statue in the piazza near Little Italy. Among the ideas? A statue of an anonymous immigrant or Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants.
“We want to make sure the individual has no controversy attached to him or her,” Pica said.
Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents Southeast Baltimore, said there’s an opportunity for “truth and reconciliation” as the community works to decide what will become of the space. He wants to ensure Native Americans and Italian Americans are able to speak up.
“We’re going to try to identify a path forward where folks are heard and acknowledged, and we do not shy away from some our dark and painful history, but recognize each other’s humanity,” he said.
The Baltimore City Council is also considering a bill to rename the Columbus Obelisk in Herring Run Park to honor victims of police brutality.
Democratic City Councilman Ryan Dorsey said during a recent hearing that his mother’s family immigrated from Italy and that the bill is “not an attack on Italians.”
Instead, he said, renaming the monument is a step toward “helping to right the ship that has been steered by white supremacy as a system for our country’s entire history.”