Columbus Statues Divide Italian-Americans

Jun 25, 2020

The bronze statue of Christopher Columbus formerly located at Wooster Square in New Haven, Conn. The statue was removed by the city Parks Commission Wednesday.
Credit 2112guy / Wikimedia Commons

A statue of Christopher Columbus has come down in New Haven’s Wooster Square. Other Connecticut cities and towns are in the process of removing theirs.

Protesters on both sides watched the Wooster Square Columbus statue come down. It was a tense scene that briefly turned physical. Some older Italian-Americans protested the removal. But younger New Haven residents like Nicolas Phillips approved.

“I’ve always despised that thing. And I couldn’t be happier to be here watching that come down. And I hope they do replace it with a more worthy Italian representative. I know that’s important to this neighborhood.”

Wooster Square in New Haven is a classic Italian neighborhood. Its pizza places, like Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s, are world famous. The community is divided over the statue. Members of two New Haven-based Italian-American organizations signed on to a letter in favor of removal.

Mayor Justin Elicker supported the removal.

“Christopher Columbus for many Italians is a celebration of Italian heritage. But at the same time, Christopher Columbus also represents a time of colonialism and atrocities committed.”

He says the confrontations over the statue’s removal don’t reflect New Haven’s values.

“There’s gonna be a lot of time for us to have conversations about the next steps to make sure that we’re honoring Italian heritage in New Haven, ensuring that’s done in a way that’s respectful to all communities.”

Hartford, New London and Middletown have also decided to remove their Columbus statues. 

But Connecticut still has more statues of Columbus than many other states. And that’s a testament not to anything he did, but to a much later transatlantic voyage that began in Ellis Island in the 19th century. Local historian Frank Carrano says most of the immigrants were poor.

“It’s reasonable to expect that they wouldn’t have the means to be traveling very far from the port of entry. And so they began to settle.”

The belt from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania has the highest concentration of Italian-Americans in the United States. Connecticut has more residents with Italian ancestry per capita than any state other than Rhode Island.

New Haven companies recruited workers straight from Italy. The immigrants gradually turned Wooster Square and other neighborhoods into comfortable middle class enclaves. Carrano says for generations, Columbus was central to the Italian-American experience.

“And Columbus remained an iconic figure for Italian-Americans across the country as a person in whom we could have great pride. Because we could claim him as an Italian.”

Frances Calzetta with the Italian-American Historical Society of Connecticut says she thinks he’s been unfairly vilified.

“He was such a great man. Probably one of the most talented, well-educated and highly imaginative. This is why he was the hero, this is why they attach themselves to him as someone who represented their ideals, what they wanted to be, what they wanted for their children.”

New Haven officials say the statue is planned to reside at the Knights of Columbus Museum.

Historian Frank Carrano was one of those who signed a petition to have the statue removed. He says he’d like to see a new tribute to the Italian-American experience in Wooster Square.

“Because I think it’s what America’s all about. And we have in Wooster Square a microcosm of the American immigrant experience that has been rolled out across this country.”

Carrano says he’d rather see a tribute that represents the Italian-American experience as a whole – not just a statue of a single person.