Stop Attacks on Pioneer LGBT Sculptor — Emma Stebbins and Her Columbus Statue

Columbus Heritage Coalition President Angelo Vivolo urges NYC Parks Commissioner to protect historic work of LGBTQ icon

Mitchell J. Silver
NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

Re: Stop Attacks on Pioneer LGBT Sculptor
Emma Stebbins and Her Columbus Statue

Dear Commissioner Silver,

We represent supporters of pioneering gay sculptor Emma Stebbins pushing
back against a campaign to take down her celebrated 162-year-old Columbus
statue in downtown Brooklyn.

You have been a steadfast leader with an exemplary record to preserve the
diverse history of our beloved city while encouraging expressions of pride
and excellence. Once again we ask that the Parks Department reject
mindless efforts to wipe away historic touchstones, including this effort
to dislodge this historic monument.

Born in Manhattan, Stebbins opened an artist’s studio in Rome where she
lived with her partner and renowned actress Charlotte Cushman. With her
commission to create the Columbus statue, Stebbins became the first woman
to create public artwork for New York City. She envisaged the likeness of
Columbus at midnight standing upon the deck with his hand on the
rudder-post, “piercing the darkness with his eye of faith,” waiting for the

Dr. John La Corte, president of the Italian Historical Society of America,
has observed how Stebbins through art rechanneled the hatred and
discrimination she faced: “Standing up to the judgment and criticism of
the entrenched views of her time, we can imagine her identifying with the
visage of strength and determination she so artfully places on the face of
the young Columbus,” he said.

Unfortunately, Brooklyn Community Board 2 has sided with the “Take Down”
anti-Stebbins activists in an advisory vote that proposes to carry away the
statue and have it closeted to an unknown location. The publicly stated
goal of “Take Down” is to “tear down” and “eliminate” statues such as
Stebbins’ gift regardless of context and history. Members have publicly
stated they will work on dislodging all Columbus statues in New York City
“by whatever way we have to do it.”

But the defense of Stebbins and her work reflects a spectrum of viewpoints
supporting her statue of Columbus, which was welcomed to its niche near
Brooklyn Borough Hall fifty years ago through the efforts of La Corte’s
father, a community activist.

Rafael Ortiz, an author of several books about Columbus and his impact on
Hispanic Americans, appealed to the board to consider the impact of their
actions on other cultures, especially the Hispanic community. Ortiz said,
“We know that the Italian-born explorer’s legacy has been twisted and
misrepresented into a biased and hateful view of Hispanic and Latino
cultures and that of the Spanish, who were the first European settlers in
the new world. I’m here to ask you to help us stop the systematic racism
against the Italian American and the Hispanic communities.”

Ortiz added: “I kindly ask those who persist in removing Columbus’ statues
Today: Please stop. Rather than split us apart, join us instead was we
celebrate the true meaning of Christopher Columbus and our Hispanic
culture, traditions, and diversity.”

John Fratta, chairman of the New York State Commission on Social Justice,
explained how Italian immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries
turned to Christopher Columbus as a symbol of pride in the face of
prejudice When anti-Italian hatred erupted in cities across the nation.
“Italians in America needed a hero,” he said. “They looked to Christopher
Columbus. Many of the statutes of Columbus were funded by impoverished
Italian immigrants. They gave their pennies, nickels, and dimes to support
design and construction.”

Prejudice against Italian Americans continues to this day, said Fratta. He
urged Community Board 2 to “reverse course, rescind your action that is
hurtful to your Italian American neighbors. Please work with us to drop the
hate and seek the truth so that together we can build up more statues and
not tear them down.”

Members of the general public also appealed to the board to reexamine its
advisory opinion.

Jerome Krase, wrote: “Better to use the statue to teach than remove it.”

One of the speakers, Frank Lorenzo, said, “For the sake of cultural
pluralism, for the sake of diversity and inclusion, please keep the
monument in its place. You can’t build bridges by removing a cultural
symbol. This is an immigrant symbol, it’s an Italian American symbol, and
it’s a Catholic symbol.”

Another speaker, of multiracial background, said that her grandfather was
African American. She noted that older generations of Americans revere
Columbus. “I look white,” she said. “My grandfather was black. He loved
Christopher Columbus. He loved that history. I know he would be so upset
about this. We need to consider that there is an older generation that has
revered this man for a long time.”

Another activist identified as Concerned Citizen wrote: “The statue merely
memorializes one figure who nobody can deny played a part in our history.
History & historical figures should not be torn down.”

“A whole generation already has been sullied by the likes of so many
Columbus detractors,” wrote Lou Gallo. “Particularly Howard Zinn, the
infamous “historian,” avowed Marxist and manipulative progenitor down
rightly responsible for the misinformation, disinformation, faulty
interpretations and translations, non-sequiturs, and textual corruptions
about the legacy of Columbus. “

“It is quite sad!” wrote Xiao Luobo. “Never mind if he really discovered
America before anybody else. It is still part of the American and
Italo-American culture.”

It is our understanding that the Community Board is in imminent
communication with your office. We appreciate the opportunity to
demonstrate the strong community support for Emma Stebbins’s Columbus.

With all best wishes,

Angelo Vivolo
Columbus Heritage Coalition