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Putting people of color on the Christopher Columbus pedestal

Arts educator Elma Lewis (1921-2004) was memorialized Monday evening.
Arts educator Elma Lewis (1921-2004) was memorialized Monday evening.@aramphoto

After the sun set Monday evening, the former site of Boston’s Christopher Columbus statue was transformed by “The People’s Memorial Project.” The one-night installation featured projections of eight Black, Latino, and Indigenous icons — both dead and alive — onto a person-shaped block placed atop the statue’s pedestal.

“These people really deserve to be celebrated,” artist Cedric “Vise 1” Douglas said.

Long heralded for discovering the New World for Europeans, Columbus is also remembered for enslaving and torturing thousands of Indigenous people in the 15th-century Americas. Boston officials removed a 6-foot Carrara marble statue of the Italian explorer in June after protesters beheaded the oft-vandalized monument. (The statue itself will soon be moved to the North Margin Street chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal organization.)

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The statue’s original perch sat empty for months. That is, until Columbus Day — also known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in some municipalities.

Douglas and his team put the empty Atlantic Avenue pedestal to use by displaying images of politician Mel King, arts educator Elma Lewis, rapper Keith “Guru” Elam, legislator Sonia Chang-Diaz, and community leader Frieda Garcia. Also celebrated were three Indigenous figures: Chief Massasoit, Crispus Attucks, and Jessie “Little Doe” Baird. A short biography and quote accompanied each projection.

Prominent community members and organizers nominated more than 100 people for the installation. Those picks were then whittled down to the final eight, Douglas said. In the end, he wanted to highlight normal people from the area who continue to serve as inspiration.

Monuments are “always glorifying military figures and people who are political,” Douglas said. “Couldn’t we glorify the everyday person? That’s more contemporary.”

A collaboration with the immersive performance company ILLUMINUS, Monday’s installation was the first step in Douglas’s plans for a longstanding series. He intends to reimagine recently toppled monuments that long upheld racism and discriminatory values, next time incorporating different mediums like spray paint. These sites hold an opportunity, he said, to debut modern pieces connected to the communities around them.

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“[There are] all these pedestals, all across the world, that are blank right now," Douglas said. “What is the just process that they could be used for? What’s next? ... How many monuments of Black individuals do we have in Boston? How many of Asians? How many of LGBTQ [people]? How many of Indigenous people, who are the real founders of this country?"

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.