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Baltimore’s Columbus monuments drawn into debate as memorials fall around the country

The national reckoning over racism and police violence that has toppled statues of Confederate figures and enslavers in public areas across the United States in recent weeks has drawn renewed attention to Baltimore’s Christopher Columbus memorials — including one believed to be the oldest in the country.

A Republican state delegate and Italian-American activists are asking Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to preserve and protect the memorials, following activists’ comments about pulling down the monuments themselves and the introduction of a City Council bill this week to rename one of them in honor of victims of police violence.

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The legacy of the famous 15th-century Italian explorer, who had long been credited by history textbooks as a hero who discovered America, has come under fire over his violent enslavement of native people.

The debate follows nationwide protests decrying systemic racism and police violence against Black people, prompted by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, who died last month after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.

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The 44-foot obelisk dedicated to Columbus in Northeast Baltimore’s Herring Run Park — erected in 1792 to honor the 300th anniversary of his journey from Europe — is believed to be the first monument in the country to honor him. Statues of the explorer also stand in Druid Hill Park and in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.

Bmore BLOC, a local activist group, said on Twitter they might remove the monuments themselves if Young does not order them taken down this week.

“[W]e don’t think these Columbus monuments have much time left anymore,” the group tweeted Sunday. “72 hours sounds like plenty of time for y’all to take them down. can’t guarantee they’ll still be standing after that.”

Baltimore City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, a Democrat, has sought to rename the 228-year-old monument in Herring Run Park since 2017, when a video circulated of a man taking a sledgehammer to its base. Dorsey surveyed neighbors at the time to gather input on how the monument could be renamed to better represent “current-day values.”

His bill, which has not yet received a hearing before the council, would rename the obelisk as the Police Violence Victims Monument.

State Dels. Kathy Szeliga and Nino Mangione, both Baltimore County Republicans, and Italian-American activists plan to ask the Republican governor and Democratic mayor to maintain the monuments to Columbus “and the contributions of generations of Italian Americans have made to the city, state, and nation” at an 11 a.m. news conference Friday in Little Italy, Szeliga said.

“We ardently believe the public should have the decision-making on the statues, monuments and artwork, and not some vigilante group or people threatening to vandalize any pieces of art that are publicly owned,” Szeliga said in a phone interview Thursday. “Vandalizing public property is illegal.”

The state delegate added that she was offended by Dorsey’s tweets, in which he said he had received multiple threatening calls at his office from people claiming that he and Bmore BLOC “are messing with the Italian mafia, that we must not understand what we’re messing with.”

She claimed that the tweet was stereotyping Italian Americans, but he emphasized Friday that that was not the case.

“What some people are attempting to do is center the conversation around Columbus, around people and personalities, rather than centering the conversation around the principle that false narratives are inherently damaging to our society,” Dorsey said in a phone interview.

Dorsey wrote on Twitter that a neighbor blew a whistle in front of the councilman’s house on a recent night until he came outside, then brought his German shepherd within a foot of him, shined a flashlight into his face, used a homophobic epithet and said “you’re messing with the Italians.”

A spokesman for Young has declined to comment on the Columbus monuments this week.

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As many in American society reconsider the country’s history and the legacies of its historical figures, the Columbus monuments aren’t the only ones in Baltimore that have received increased scrutiny — and vandalism — in recent years.

The George Washington monument in Druid Hill Park on the city’s northwest side was vandalized last weekend with what appeared to be red paint and graffiti, with “Destroy Racists,” anti-police sentiment and a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement written at its base. Washington owned enslaved people.

Red paint and the words “Racist Anthem” were discovered on a monument to Francis Scott Key in Bolton Hill in 2017. The third stanza in Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner,” which became the national anthem, includes a reference accusing the British of encouraging American slaves to join the fight against their masters.

Baltimore’s most recent statue removal came earlier that year, when then-Mayor Catherine E. Pugh ordered four Confederate-linked monuments in the city removed, unannounced and under cover of darkness.

A group of Baltimore protesters, including members of Bmore BLOC, had pledged to tear down a monument to Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at Wyman Park Dell near the Johns Hopkins University themselves if the city did not.

The removal followed a deadly rally by white supremacists and neo-Nazis defending a monument to Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Pugh hoped to avoid a similar violent confrontation, she said at the time.

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