If you ask a New Yorker which monuments symbolize an immigrants introduction to this country, they’ll quickly note two famous statues: the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, and the statue of Columbus atop the landmark circle that bears his name.
The Statue of Liberty was a gift from the people of France, the Columbus memorial was funded by countless small gifts from Italian newcomers and their families.
The Columbus monument represented a coming of age for Italian immigrants; it gave them a sense of belonging in America after years or persecution. For many Italian-Americans today, the call to remove the statue of Columbus is a chilling reminder of just how unwelcome we have sometimes been here.
One of the state’s founding fathers, John Jay, served as president of the Continental Congress, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and governor of New York state. It was Jay who urged the state Legislature to prohibit Catholics from holding public office, a direct attack on Italians.
A city college in Jay’s honor, complete with a statue, stands as a reminder of his legacy to this day, seemingly immune from the debate of the moment. Despite the anti-immigrant sentiment at the time, Italians during the 19th century sought to place a Christopher Columbus monument as memorial to their fellow countrymen. They saw Columbus as someone to be celebrated as a symbol of their immigrant roots.
Columbus connected the eastern and western hemisphere, essentially changing every aspect of human connectivity; from how we travel, to how we trade, to what we eat, and how we think. Columbus’ contribution to history is second to none.
As it pertains to his controversial history, Christopher Columbus was a product of his time. I challenge you to find an historical figure with no sin or controversy. He voyaged across the Atlantic four times, a tremendous accomplishment during the 15th century.
As an Italian-American and as a New York state legislator, I will staunchly speak out against those who aim to remove a statue of the man who represents our heritage. We should continue to take pride in the contributions that a fellow Italian gave to this country and the world.
Enjoy your Columbus Day and I hope everyone takes time to think about the complexities of history; when accomplishments are measured up against the imperfections of human beings.
Diane Savino represents New York's 23rd Senate District.
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