On June 9 in Richmond, Va.—two weeks into the protests following the police killing of George Floyd—demonstrators gathered at a statue of Christopher Columbus in the city’s Near West End. After a march of about 1,000 people, led by Indigenous activists in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, protesters threw ropes across the statue, pulled it down, rolled it 200 yards, and threw it into a nearby lake.
The next day, demonstrators in Boston, Miami, and St. Paul toppled or defaced other Columbus statues, and over the next few weeks, several more cities followed suit. The actions were a testament to the depth of the burgeoning movement: This mass mobilization against American racism was taking it back to the beginning, denouncing the false hagiography of the hemisphere’s so-called discoverer.
The Columbus statue in Richmond, the first of its kind in the South, was built in 1927—a project of the local Italian community. Rather than celebrate racism, however, the community erected the monument to combat it: They wanted to show that Italians, who had for decades faced prejudice and derision in the United States, were an integral part of America—that one of our ancestors was even responsible for its supposed founding. It was part of a campaign among Italians in the United States to use Columbus to escape the plight of otherness—that is, to gain access to American whiteness, otherwise reserved for Protestant Anglos.