Newark’s Choice: Columbus and Tubman, A Statement by Angelo Vivolo, President of the Columbus Heritage Coalition

The Columbus Memorial, gifted by the Italian American community and installed in George Washington Park in 1927, was removed in the dark of night by the City of Newark in 2021.

In its place has been proposed a statue of 19th-century civil rights advocate Harriet Tubman, who shepherded hundreds of enslaved Americans to freedom via the famed Underground Railroad. The city has renamed the park in honor of Harriet Tubman Square and dropped Washington.

I am all in favor of having a statue for Harriet Tubman. She was an icon who did so much to oppose slavery. And there is no question that there should be a place to have her statue built and where people can honor her and all the good things she did.

But wiping the Washington name and carrying the Columbus memorial into seclusion is wrong.

We must respect one another. When you offend one culture, you offend all cultures.

For Newark and Essex County Italian Americans, Columbus remains a cultural symbol and source of pride. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka says he intended no insult against Italian Americans when he ordered the Columbus Memorial carried away.

But it is an insult, a hurtful insult.

Why was there no room for public discussion?

The truth is that Columbus was not responsible for the slave trade. Slavery existed in the Western Hemisphere hundreds of years before the arrival of Columbus, who never owned slaves.

The Columbus Heritage Coalition strongly believes in dialogue, searching for common ground, and building bridges with many communities. We have sought to protect memorials in New York City targeted by vandals, including one Columbus memorial donated by the Latino community.

Recently a group called Knock Down Columbus sought to destroy a memorial designed and created by Emma Stebbins, a pioneering gay artist of the 19th Century.

Thankfully, the efforts of people of goodwill have ensured that the Emma Stebbins memorial in downtown Brooklyn will not be carried off into the night, as was the case here in Newark.

We are concerned that New York City officials recently removed the police presence at Columbus Circle, where vandals deliberately defaced public property last year.

Should vandals strike again–God forbid–should they deface that memorial in Columbus Circle in any way, immediate action must follow. Illegal acts must have consequences. So let there be no doubt that we remain vigilant.

Eighty years ago, tens of thousands of innocent Italians in America were set free from wartime internment camps and other confinements–even as many of their young sons fought and died for this great country in World War II.

We as a people will never forget their sacrifice.

I am hopeful that the memorial to Christopher Columbus in Newark will also be set free, restored, and returned to its rightful home in Washington Park.

And I am hopeful that all people of goodwill come together, drop the hate, seek the truth and make room in their hearts for Christopher Columbus—and Harriet Tubman.

Listen here.