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The meaning of Columbus, his image and history continue to evolve

People protest in front of the former statue to Christopher Columbus in Richmond's Byrd Park
People protest near a statue of Christopher Columbus in Richmond's Byrd Park during 2020. Protesters later tore down the statue and tossed it into a nearby lake in June 2020. (File photo: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

On June 9, 2020, a statue of Christopher Columbus in Richmond’s Byrd Park became one of many monuments to the explorer toppled by protesters around the world following George Floyd’s murder. 

The forceful removal of the Columbus statue in Richmond was preceded by years of debate around the explorer’s legacy, as people discussed whether the explorer should be celebrated and how to recognize the brutality he forced native people to endure. It’s an issue that reaches into classrooms and still impacts public art. 

Amid the debate, some city and state governments — including Richmond — have begun celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.

According to Karen Sherry, a curator at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, efforts in the 1920s to get the statue put up were controversial, too, but for different reasons. 

“This was a period of nativism and intense anti-immigrant sentiment,” Sherry said. Much of that was directed at Italian and Jewish immigrants — or anyone who was “deemed not sufficiently white or not Protestant, not of Anglo-Saxon origin.” 

Proponents of the statute about 100 years ago initially tried to get it placed along Monument Avenue, but the city wasn’t willing; Sherry said some Richmonders used derogatory language in their responses to the proposal. 

Regardless, Sherry noted that Columbus had long been lionized as an American hero by that point. 

“Americans really started celebrating Columbus in the Revolutionary era, when America was gaining its independence and looking for symbols that were distinct from their British heritage,” Sherry said.  

By the time the statute was unveiled in Byrd Park, Sherry said, Columbus had become a symbol of perseverance for Italian immigrants experiencing prejudice. 

In June 2020, however, the statue represented entirely different things to an entirely different group of people. 

“It was removed by demonstrators who see Columbus as a symbol of oppression of Indigenous Americans, of their decimation and the genocide against them,” Sherry said. 

She said she sees the shift in opinion as an important history lesson for Richmonders, who live in one of the key cities in America’s debate around its history. 

“Our public symbols, whether they’re sculptures or they’re names on buildings or names on streets, they carry meaning and they carry history,” she said. 

Virginia still has Columbus Day on its official state calendar. From 2019 to 2021, former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, issued proclamations declaring the second Monday of October to be Indigenous People’s Day.

On Monday, Sherry led a presentation for VMHC members on the history of Richmond’s Columbus statue. During her talk, she previewed an American flag that was displayed at the 1927 dedication of the statue. The flag was owned by an Italian American woman who participated in the ceremony.

Sherry said the flag can’t be on display regularly or it will deteriorate. The flag, though, will help tell the story of immigration in Virginia, Sherry said, and will eventually be on display, but likely not until 2026.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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