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Vandalized statue of Christopher Columbus will be removed pending a review, Mayor Walsh says

The vandalized statue of Christopher Columbus in the North End.
The vandalized statue of Christopher Columbus in the North End.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The often-vandalized statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston’s North End, found decapitated again Wednesday, might be removed permanently as city officials and residents discuss whether the controversial explorer’s likeness should occupy a prominent position on the waterfront.

The 6-foot Carrara marble statue of Columbus, hailed for centuries for discovering the New World for Europeans but later vilified for the genocide of indigenous people, was beheaded sometime before 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, when a passerby alerted police.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Wednesday that the statue would be placed in storage and its future reassessed amid an ongoing, passionate national debate about the rights and treatment of people of color and a broad reappraisal of monuments that recall historical injustices.

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“We don’t condone vandalism, and it needs to stop,” Walsh said. However, he added, "given the conversations that we’re having right now in our city and throughout the country, we’re also going to take time to assess the historic meaning of the statue.”

The reaction to the vandalism reflected the layered legacy of brutal violence and groundbreaking exploration that Columbus, an Italian mariner, created by his journeys to the Western hemisphere beginning in 1492.

The statue “is representative of the state violence endured by Black and indigenous peoples for over 500 years,” said Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the board of the North American Indian Center of Boston. “Any attempt to erase our history through the restoration of the statue will be met by Black and indigenous peoples asserting our rights and sovereignty.”

City Councilor Lydia Edwards, whose district includes the North End and its many Italian-American residents, said, “Vandalism doesn’t help the conversation move forward. The statue and story of Columbus may be controversial, but defacing property is not the answer.”

"One of the conversations we need to have is about how we honor our history and culture while being sensitive to the world around us,” she added.

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“We need to acknowledge that certain symbols can cause pain. We need to honor Italian heritage,” Edwards said. “It’s a conversation I think we should have, and it should be led by Italian-American families, residents of the North End, and our indigenous brothers and sisters.”

The statue, which is owned by the Boston Parks Department and stands on a 5-foot pedestal, has been targeted several times since it was erected in 1979. Its granite base will remain at the park while a decision is made on the statue.

In 2004, the statue was splashed with red paint, with the word “murderer” spray-painted on the base. Two years later, Columbus was decapitated, with the head found six days later on Sheaf Street in the neighborhood. In 2015, the words “Black Lives Matter” were spray-painted on the structure and red paint was dumped on the head.

On Tuesday night, a Columbus statue was vandalized in Richmond, Va. Protesters pulled down an 8-foot-tall statue of Columbus, dragged it 200 yards, and dumped it into a lake, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The vandalism was seen by some as another move to erase history rather than confront it.

Domenic Piso wrote for a neighborhood forum that “it is a very, very sad day when statues that have significant cultural and historical value are vandalized, removed, or destroyed.”

“Some of these stories make us very proud and not so proud. It’s our history," Piso told northendwaterfront.com. "Statues should not be randomly removed because it is the popular thing to do. ”

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Matteo Casini, who teaches Renaissance and Mediterranean history at Suffolk University and the University of Massachusetts Boston, said Columbus’s position in modern America “must not be seen for what he did more than 500 years ago, but, first of all, as a symbol for the Italian-Americans that started coming here in the late 1800s."

"They fought an extremely hard battle, as everyone knows, for racial equality and social acknowledgment, very like that of the African and Native Americans,” he said. "The Columbus Day feast and the statues, among all things devoted to him in the last 150 years or so, must be considered as ‘weapons of pride’ of one of the minorities who wanted to conquer — with hard work, acceptance of the common rules, and full integration — its own place in the ‘land of opportunity.’ "

“History is history and must be understood as it is, and not forgotten or reinvented for our own political agenda," he added.

In Boston, the statue had become an object of curiosity and debate Wednesday as residents enjoyed the lawn and walkways in Christopher Columbus Park on a beautiful late spring day. In the afternoon, several people stopped to snap pictures, while others did a double-take and kept walking.

Orrett Morgan, 30, and Jhazmin Calderon, 25, came to look at the statue after hearing about it on the news.

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Morgan said he does not condone the destruction of property but thinks the city should remove the statue. He said he would be fine seeing this type of statue in museums, but he said putting it in a public space wrongly glorifies Columbus.

Calderon was less sympathetic.

“I wish I could see it get beheaded,” she said. “I’m happy [someone] did this.”

Ann Babbitt, vice president of the Friends of Christopher Columbus Park, said she could not speak for the organization. But on a personal level, she said, “I do not respect or condone any violence or defamation of a structure. On the other hand, I totally understand the frustration.”

“Am I supportive of the protests that are going on in this country? Absolutely. Am I for equality and have I marched for it? Yes,” she added. “Destruction isn’t a constitutional right, so I hope we could have a conversation.”

Pierite, of the North American Indian Center, said he would not object if the statue was left beheaded in the park as a piece of "guerrilla art."

“Leave it like this for the next 25 years,” Pierite said. "King Philip was decapitated, and his head was placed on a pike for 25 years to send a message to the tribes here in New England as to what to expect.”

Philip, also called Metacom, was the leader of the Wampanoag tribe and was killed by Colonists in 1676.

Mahtowin Munro, spokesman for the United American Indians of New England, said in a statement that “a little slice of symbolic justice was served to all” by the defacement.

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“This park should belong to the people of Boston and be a public place that feels welcoming to everyone in Boston, not a place that is a tribute to a genocidal monster.”

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Anissa Gardizy contributed to this report.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.