MADISON – Leaders of a small Wisconsin city named after Christopher Columbus voted this week to remove a monument to its namesake, joining legions of government officials grappling with how to recognize American history while acknowledging its flaws.
The statue of Christopher Columbus has stood in a major thoroughfare at the intersection of two highways in Columbus — about 27 miles northeast of Madison — for three decades.
That’s changing after the Columbus Common Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday to remove the statue from its prominent location and put it in storage until officials can find a new home for it.
The removal comes after a Columbus High School student, Abbi Adams, started a petition following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while arresting him.
Floyd’s death sparked protests across the country in big and small communities. During the protests, statues of Confederate soldiers, controversial figures, founding fathers and past presidents have been toppled or removed.
The decision comes just weeks after protesters ripped down two iconic statues around the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Adams, who just turned 16, saw her friends posting on social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But she wanted to have more than a superficial presence and to enact real change, she said.
When she saw news footage of figures being taken down in other parts of the country, she decided she could make a difference in her own town to fight for racial equality.
“Many of us are taught in school that Christopher Columbus was a heroic explorer that paved the way for Europeans to move to the Americas,” Adams wrote in her petition that garnered more than 2,000 signatures. “In reality, he was a terrible man who caused centuries of pain and suffering for Native Americans.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Columbus resident John Waltz pushed back against Adams’ characterization of Columbus.
“We are in favor of keeping the statue because Christopher Columbus is and was a very decent strong pro-Native American person, and he is indeed a hero. We have to be proud of that,” Waltz said. “If we go ahead and in panic mode strike down everything like what’s happening throughout country, we may be sorry for that later.”
Although we don’t know if Columbus was solely responsible for atrocities that happened, Adams said, he definitely “set a precedent for how our country treated millions and millions of Native Americans.”
“It’s always bothered me that we had (the statue),” Adams said. “Because we took it down now it’s sending a message that our city does not support that kind of historical figure.”
Ald. Paul Pyfferoen was the only councilman to vote against removing the statue. He said that wasn’t necessarily a vote to keep it, though.
“The only thing that made sense to me was, unfortunately, to put this important decision into the hands of the actual citizens — and let them decide via a referendum,” Pyfferoen said.
He added it was difficult to “truly know the people’s will” on the matter. The council received countless emails and two opposing petitions to Adams and were unsure what was actually from their constituents.
Still, Adams said she’s glad it didn’t come to a referendum.
“The fact that (the council) decided to take action now shows that we actually care about this issue and are not putting it off,” she said.
Pyfferoen said the time frame for the statue’s removal is unclear. It’s as soon as the Department of Public Works has the capability to do so.
“It doesn’t matter which side wins the statue debate — the city of Columbus, Wisconsin loses. Right now our city’s namesake is a toxic brand, with or without a statue,” said Ald. Mike McCabe, one of the four councilmen who voted to remove the monument.
McCabe said the statue should be used as a teaching tool to inform citizens of the good, bad and ugly aftermath of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the states. He also suggested the city consider redefining its motto, “Discover Columbus.”
“I don’t believe the city of Columbus has a historical problem with Columbus — it has a branding and marketing problem with Columbus,” McCabe said.
Dan Amato, owner and curator of the Christopher Columbus Museum in Columbus, commissioned the fiberglass statue in 1986 and donated it to the city in 2012.
In the petition, Adams called for the statue to be relocated to a museum or place it could help show history without being displayed as publicly as it is now.
“Statues of Columbus across the nation are being taken down along with other racist historical figures,” Adams said. “We should follow suit.”
As for what’s next for Adams, she said she’s learned a lot about civic engagement from her petition. She hopes it inspires young people to get more involved.
She said she’d even like be apart of a city council one day.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Allison Garfield at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @aligarfield_.