NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — On June 25, the City of Providence removed the statue of Christopher Columbus from its place in Columbus Square where it had stood since 1893 and put it into storage until the city’s Special Committee for Commemorative Works can decide its future, and for one local group, they want that future to be in North Kingstown.
On Tuesday, Town Councilor Mary Brimer, on behalf of the North Kingstown Republican Town Committee, wrote a letter to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza offering to “accept care and custody” of the statue and work with town and several historic organizations to find a place for it in town.
“Here in North Kingstown, we take preservation and history very seriously as is evidenced by our historic preservation efforts in places such as Wickford Village, Smith’s Castle and (the) Gilbert Stuart Birthplace, to name just a few,” Brimer wrote. “Civic contributions from our taxpayers is budgeted annually for the care and maintenance of our cultural history. Privately, philanthropists and nonprofits raise even more monies for historic preservation in our community. To that end, the NKGOP extends an offer to accept care and custody of the Columbus Statue from the City of Providence. We will act as Trustees of the Statue and work with Town Manager Ralph Mollis to appropriately locate the statue, provide care and security for it.”
The statue was removed from the square following acts of vandalism both locally and around the country against historic statues.
Statues of Columbus in particular have drawn criticism from activists, who claim the Italian-born navigator’s 1492 voyage to the Caribbean was the catalyst for the decimation of the peoples who populated the Americas at that time. Statues of Columbus have been targeted throughout the country, including the Providence statue, which last November was splattered with red paint and a sign reading “stop celebrating genocide” and was boarded up earlier last month following another attempt to vandalize the statue.
“We want our community’s voice centered in the decisions made around the memorials, historical markers and monuments that represent our city,” Elorza said in a press release. “These works should reflect the vibrancy of our neighborhoods and be a source of pride for the residents who live within them. Through this Committee, we are allowing the community to take an active role in shaping these decisions and hope that through future projects, we can better reflect the collective memory of our beautiful city in these landmarks.”
On the other hand, others, such as Brimer and the NKGOP, see Columbus as a symbol of Italian-American pride who braved uncertainties to unite the New World with the Old World and set the course for the foundation of the United States and other nations. They find the attempts at vandalizing such statues, which she views as both reminders of history and works of arts, as a “deeply disturbing” attempt to erase history.
“It’s really very troubling to each of us individually and the organization as a whole the wave of violence and vandalism of our national monuments,” Brimer said. “They’re more than representative of the person or animal in history that it’s depicting, they’re works of arts.”
The statue at hand, Brimer pointed out, was designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who more famously sculpted the Statue of Liberty.
“This is a very significant statue, to just put it in storage is sacrilege,” Brimer said. “Just because one community no longer appreciates it doesn’t mean that another one cannot.”
From fellow NKGOP member and Italian-American James Gallo, Columbus has represented a point of pride.
“Well we’re very protective of Christopher Columbus since he was Italian. We view him as a great man and he was a visionary guy,” Gallo said. “As far as I’m concerned, he should represent something that’s good, not something that’s not good. I would love to have (the statue of) him here and love to show him off.”
Brimer also shared Gallo’s sentiments.
“The interpretation of Christopher Columbus, the history of him in the last 15 years or so has really changed. It’s quite opposite or very different and dark and disturbing from what we learned and I don’t know where that started but certainly within the Millennial population,” she said. “I noticed it in my work environment when Millennials were upset that we had Columbus Day off, that the stock market would be closed on Columbus Day and not on Veteran’s Day and things like that, it’s just I don’t know where this originated from, but it’s not the history that we were taught.”
According to Brimer, the idea to try and bring the statue to North Kingstown first came from the group’s recording secretary Wiliam King, who suggested they pen a letter to Elorza to offer to bring the statue to a town known for its historical preservation.
“North Kingstown does a very good job at historic preservation, at retelling history exactly as it was,” Brimer said. “Our annual budget affords a significant contribution to historic preservation, (such as) Smith’s Castle, Gilbert Stuart’s Birthplace. The Arts Council, which also supports the Wickford Arts Association, Wickford Village, which is steeped in history, and I reached out to the director of HistWick Mike Donahue and he said that HistWick will work with the Town of North Kingstown at finding an appropriate location for this monument and we would love to showcase it.”
Brimer said she would also be interested in potentially rotating the statue and other such monuments around to different communities, with each taking possession of the statue for six months to a year at a time before passing it on to another community.
“We’re happy to consider all options on the table but we do not want to see this statue boarded up in a storage facility in Providence,” Brimer said.
Before sending the letter, Brimer spoke with Mollis, a Democrat, who said he supported the measure and was willing to assist them in their efforts.
“I think it’s an outstanding idea,” Mollis said. “I’m more than happy to assist Mary and everyone else involved in this effort. If there’s anything we can do to help celebrate our history, in this case the Columbus statute, I can’t think of a better place than North Kingstown, so I offered her my full assistance. I know the town would be willing to assist in any way, whether it’s relocation, whether it’s maintenance, we think it’s a great idea and again it’s a way to celebrate our history and whatever that history may be and I think that North Kingstown is the perfect place for that because of our historic nature.”
While Mollis said he’d “rather stay on the positive” in regards to the statue, he acknowledged there would be criticism, but said he felt the historic nature of the statue outweighed anything else.
“History is a learning tool,” Mollis said. “We can only imagine how people will look back on our time 20 years from now. What we do is within this particular time and again I think that North Kingstown would be a perfect place to celebrate history no matter what it is.”
Others disagreed, saying bringing the statue to town would send a bad message to the community by going against its values.
“The Italian American community’s contributions to our country absolutely deserve to be honored, however Christopher Columbus specifically embodies the brutality and despotism he expressed towards indigenous peoples, who have been oppressed in almost every way imaginable since Columbus arrived in the ‘New World,’” Joe Vento, a North Kingstown High School student. Vento heads the North Kingstown High School Students Union.
For her case, Brimer said she wasn’t concerned with backlash and that North Kingstown and Providence are very different communities.
“I’m not worried about any backlash from it,” Brimer said. “Providence has a unique set of challenges up there and they also have an attitude of indifference towards their police between the city leadership and the police having no confidence in the city leadership and the city leadership considering actually defunding their police department and that actually evokes uncertainty amongst people... We don’t have that problem here, we have an accredited police department and there’s not a single member on this Town Council that would defund this police department.”
Still, Brimer said security of the statute and other monuments in town would be a top priority in regards to the statue and other monuments in town, pointing to the added cage around the Narragansett Rune Stone, which was stolen in 2012 before being returned in 2013, and the lessons learned from it.
“I will do whatever it takes to protect these pieces of art and history,” Brimer said. “There are people in this town and in this community that are willing to pay privately for this monument to be displayed and to be protected.”
“The removal of the statue, the desecration of it, doesn’t change the history that it was created to represent and we all have an opportunity to create history in the present for now going forward and we’re not going to erase the past and this particular statue deserved to be honored and displayed for the public for education and for enjoyment and tourism,” Brimer added.
As of print time, Brimer said she had not heard back from Elorza or the City of Providence regarding the letter, but is still hopeful that it can be brought to North Kingstown.