Columbus Goes to Johnston

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The Italian American community has lusted after the statue of Christopher Columbus in Elmwood for decades.  And now it has it, to be put into a park in Johnston, thanks to the former Mayor Joseph Paolino’s money.

The statue was removed from Elmwood in 2020 after it had been defaced in 2014 and 2017 in protest of Columbus Day.  Protestors in Providence doused the statue with red paint, a sign of the deadly consequences to indigenous peoples of Columbus’ “discovery” of a world unknown to Europeans.  Instead of representing a grand beginning, Columbus, it was argued, introduced subjugation and colonialism to people already living in the “new world.”  Monuments erected in one historical moment, as it turns out, are not immune to evolving interpretations of their meanings, a hard lesson learned recently by supporters of Confederate statuary.

The statue, however, was erected in 1893 just outside of the Gorham Manufacturing Company in Providence where it was twice cast.  To late nineteenth-century Americans, Columbus’ discovery was being celebrated to mark 400 years of history and to anticipate industrialized greatness ahead.  The nation celebrated these sentiments in Chicago where the Columbian Exhibition was held and where Gorham’s statue stood, cast in sterling silver.  The casting celebrated Gorham’s technological skill and Providence’s industrial prowess.  In the spirit of the Columbian Exhibition, the residents of Elmwood paid to have Gorham recast the statue in bronze.  They gave it to the city where it was dedicated in Elmwood’s Columbus Park in 1893.

The statue is beautiful and valuable, worth, one might suspect, more than the $50,000 Paolino paid.  It was designed by Frederic Auguste Bartoldi, the French artist who designed the Statue of Liberty.  It has its own aesthetic merit along with layers of historical significance.  From the history of Columbus himself to the 1893 Exposition in his honor, from Columbus Park in Elmwood adjacent to Gorham to the proposed new site in Johnston, the statue participates in histories attached to the moments of their construction.  The controversy behind defacing Columbus’ statue stresses his legacy no longer seen in simplistic terms as the origin of American greatness but more generally the beginning of colonialism.  The Columbian Exhibition four hundred years later, is its own controversy to current historians, one of whom, Gail Bederman of Notre Dame University, has characterized the White City of the Chicago Exhibition, a reference to its classical architecture, as a “. . .a vision of future perfection and of the advanced racial power of manly commerce and technology. . .an ideal of white male power.”  Installing the statue in Johnston lends no understanding to this statue’s history.

Paolino’s proposal for the statue, quoted in April in The Rhode Island Wave, made short shrift of the statue’s history or the content of its controversies.  His proposal made clear at length, however, that the statue now is one of the “symbols that foster Italian-American pride.” The sense of the statue’s histories should be elucidated, not minimized.  The statue does not belong in anyone’s park.  It belongs in a museum, where no one history of Columbus “wins,” but where all of Providence can appreciate this statue’s beauty in its full and accurate contexts.

Update

While Columbus has definitely gone to Johnston, questions remain about the money paid to the city for the statue.  According to city spokesman Josh Estrella, the $50,000 is in the hands of “the Parks Department and must be used for a designated project within the Reservoir Triangle Neighborhood Park.”  Further, the city is committed to working with the community and City Council to develop such a project in the coming year.

As of now, several suggestions have been made.  Diana Gray, Native American of Pequot and Narragansett ancestry, has cited the removal of the Columbus statue as opportune moment to honor the history of Native Americans in Rhode Island.  She has enlisted support from Darrell Waldron, Director of the Rhode Island Indian Council, who is most passionate about Rhode Island learning more of its full history, whether from statues or other means.

The Reservoir Triangle is a particularly apt place to remember this early history.  Elmwood and Reservoir Avenue, and especially Broad Street, were originally Indian trails running south across the fields.  Within city founder Roger Williams’ lifetime, however, the Native American tribes had gone from friendly relations with him when the city was founded in 1636 to a bloody and devastating conflict in 1675-1676, King Philip’s War, which Williams supported.

Map of Providence c. 100 years after the city’s founding, with roads that were often based on original trails fanning south and west.  “Map of Portion of the Town of Providence, 1750, Providence,” John Hutchings Cady research scrapbook collection, Providence Public Library, Providence, R.I.

The fields of South Providence were where Roger Williams farmed until his death in 1683.  The last piece of that farm became the initial part of Roger Williams Park nearly two hundred years later in 1872.  The park is situated between Elmwood Avenue and Broad Street, what had originally been Native American land, marked by original trails.

City Councilman Jim Taylor has a second plan, suggesting a fountain for the small park.  He figures that it will take two to three years to secure funding with the help of the money he has for his ward, which includes the triangle.  Anyone interested in the plans for this park should be alert to any community meetings scheduled to consider them.

Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator who has lived in Elmwood over fifty years.