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After 110 years downtown, Detroit’s Christopher Columbus bust placed in storage

Statue of Christopher Columbus (Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Commons)

The bust of controversial historical figure Christopher Columbus, which had been displayed in the city for more than a century, was removed Monday to be placed in storage.

The decision by Mayor Mike Duggan to pull the bust from public view in Detroit’s downtown comes as several Columbus statues have recently been destroyed, vandalized or removed in America amid public outcry against the Italian explorer during racial justice protests.

John Roach, a mayoral spokesman, said via text message that “the mayor decided it ought to be placed in storage to give us time to evaluate the appropriate long-term disposition of the statue.”

The bust’s removal from its perch on Randolph, north of East Jefferson, makes it the second visage of a figure this month to be removed from the public eye in Metro Detroit. The statue of late Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard was recently pulled from the grounds of the Dearborn Historical Museum.

“I’ve been bothered for a while by the fact that the statue is occupying such a place of prominence next to City Hall right on Jefferson, and I supported City Council, three years ago, when they voted to eliminate Columbus Day as a holiday in the city of Detroit,” Duggan said Monday.

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Roach said he was not aware of any group’s involvement in the removal of the bust and added there were no other statues planned for removal as of Monday.

Duggan, meanwhile, said the city will work with community members to decide the appropriate measures for the bust’s future.

Last year, Detroit renamed Cobo Center as TCF Center after the convention center’s name came under fire for policies its namesake, Albert E. Cobo, enacted as mayor of Detroit in the 1950s that some have called racist. Duggan and others criticized Cobo for spearheading urban renewal projects that razed black neighborhoods.

“We’ll have a conversation as a community because as I felt with Cobo Hall, which I push very hard to change, I didn’t think that our convention center, a national symbol of the city, should be named after somebody who really did a lot to make the lives of African Americans worse in the city of Detroit,” Duggan said.

“And I just didn’t think this was the right location of prominence. I think if you get a spot next to City Hall. That is a place that should be of civility.”

On Oct. 7, 2018, the city also marked its first Indigenous Peoples’ Day with music and prayer at Spirit Plaza on the day traditionally celebrated as Columbus Day. The holiday was a result of a resolution passed by Detroit’s City Council to honor indigenous leaders on the second Monday of October. Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López spearheaded the effort in partnership with a coalition of Detroit’s indigenous leaders.

David Pitawanakwat, a member of the Detroit Indigenous Peoples Alliance who started the change.org petition to replace the statue said the move was “long overdue.”

Grassroots organizers have been pushing for recognition of indigenous issues in the city since 2015, which included taking down the statue, he said.

“After Minneapolis took down their statue, there were a number of Detroit Anishnabek that thought we should respond in solidarity,” said Pitawanakwat, an Anishnabek from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory and law student at Detroit Mercy. “As much as I would have liked to see Columbus discover the Detroit River, I’m glad the city did something before the people did.”

Castañeda-López noted there had previously been pushback and the administration didn’t seem interested removing the bust. But the call for its removal was renewed in recent weeks as groups have marched around racial justice.

“I am happy that it’s been taken down but disappointed that it took so long to get to this point, and it was a little bit unclear that the mayor had the authority to just do that,” she said. “It’s about making sure that everyone’s story gets told and everyone’s history gets acknowledged and recognizing the contributions of the indigenous that were here before any of us and continue to be here.”

Castañeda-López is supportive of the statue remaining in storage or being given back to the original donors in favor of a statue honoring the indigenous community.

Pam White, co-publisher of the Italian Tribune Newspaper in Macomb County, said the bronze statue is estimated to be worth about $800,000. She said Italians visit the statue each year and place a wreath in front of it to celebrate those who came to America to start a new life.

To remove it, she said, is destroying “a priceless piece of art.”

“That is like burning books,” she said. “When they want to take away the statue, (Italians) are offended because it is as they are erasing their contribution to Detroit. What I don’t understand is why some people are allowed freedom of speech but others are not.”

White said she intends to contact Duggan’s office to see if they can “peacefully decide on what should be done.” There has been discussion in past years about moving the statue to the suburbs, she said.

A plaque at the Columbus bust site notes it was placed on Columbus Day 1910 “by the Italians of Detroit.” The News reported in July 1910 that some of those Italians of Detroit objected to placing a bust, without hands or feet, rather than a complete statue.

As an unnamed member of that delegation said at a meeting of Detroit’s Common Council, “we do not want a bust … we want a big monument, even if it costs $25,000, and we want it with feet.”

Supporters had raised about $800 for the bust to be sculpted by that point, and months later it would be placed. When The News wrote about the bust in September 1983, it was on Washington Boulevard. For decades, Detroit’s Italian community would lay wreaths at the bust’s marble base on Columbus Day.

Mark Garagiola, a past president and member of the Columbus Day Committee in Michigan, said the man many Italians view as symbolic has become divisive.

“Aside from politics and historical context, it’s a symbol of the achievements of the Italian community in Metro Detroit and around the U.S., and it’s a national holiday related to being Italian, at least, that’s how we see it,” Garagiola said.

“The portrayal of Columbus has been a sore spot in the Italian community and especially the removal. The bust was done by an Italian and financed by Italians, and we take it personally.”

Nonetheless, Garagiola appreciated the statue’s removal to storage, saying it should remain safe.

“It’s got a bullseye on it’s back, and it is for the best interest that it be removed and possibly relocated,” he said. “It means a lot to the community. If it was destroyed, what good is that?”

Annually, the committee would hold a ceremony at the statue in October, then hold a mass at the Holy Family Church in Detroit. The committee has laid low the past two years after Detroit moved to no longer recognize Columbus Day, but Garagiola said it has also mobilized small Italian heritage groups to connect.

The statue was moved three times before finding its place at Jefferson and was even once planned to be placed across from the Joe Louis Fist monument in Hart Plaza, Garagiola said.

In 1988, under Mayor Coleman Young, the bust was moved to the median on Randolph, north of Jefferson.

Garagiola said the committee has looked into relocating it to the Italian Cultural Center in Clinton Township, Livonia, or to the Italian Center at Macomb Community College.

“The holiday isn’t recognized in the city anymore, and I think there’s space for both, Columbus Day and an Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” he said. “We didn’t really have much a defense when the issue was brought up to Detroit council, but one shouldn’t take away from the other.”

The removal of monuments comes as the Black Lives Matter movement is sweeping America, bringing down not just symbols of the Confederacy, but modern-day leaders antagonistic to minorities, including Hubbard and Frank Rizzo, formerly mayor of Philadelphia.

In Dearborn on June 5, the statue of Hubbard was removed from the grounds of the Dearborn Historical Museum. The day before, protesters had placed a Black Lives Matter T-shirt on Hubbard, the city’s best-known mayor and a proud segregationist. The statue was removed just two days before a protest at the historical museum, where people also sought to remove Hubbard’s name from Hubbard Road.

Hubbard’s family took the statue and had begun at least preliminary talks about possibly relocating it to his burial site at Riverside Cemetery in Union Township.

Elana Rugh, president and CEO of the Detroit Historical Society, said the Columbus bust would be welcome in its holdings, which include some 300,000 artifacts, held at Historic Fort Wayne.

“I hope it goes there because we know it’ll be well-cared for,” Rugh said.

The society has not been contacted about that, though, and city hall declined to say where it will be stored.

Only about 5% of its collection is displayed publicly, and the Detroit Historical Museum could explain the bust’s historic context, Rugh said.

“Here it was installed for 110 years, and then it was removed, and that’s as historic,” said Rugh, noting that museums across America are having similar conversations.

“The fact that it’s difficult to talk about doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. This gives us an opportunity to provide an education on difficult topics.”

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© 2020 The Detroit News