The Christopher Columbus statue in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).
By Kimberly Rooney
PITTSBURGH — About 30 community members joined a virtual community meeting on Sept. 29 to discuss Pittsburgh’s Columbus Day Parade that is scheduled for Sat., Oct. 9, in the Bloomfield neighborhood.
At the meetings hosted by the Bloomfield Development Corporation, four people were given the chance to address the group, and they shared opinions strongly for and against the continuation of the parade and Columbus Day that were rooted in their personal heritages.
“[The business district committee of BDC] realized pretty quickly that the conversation wasn’t necessarily about having the parade at all — less about the road closures, more about the strong polarized feelings about this particular historical figure,” said BDC executive director Christina Howell after the meeting.
The discussion was led by facilitators and they guided participants of the virtual meeting through a series of reflective questions, allowing people time to talk in smaller breakout rooms before and after people got a chance to address the entire group.
Of the people who volunteered personal information during the questions, eight meeting members live in or just outside of Bloomfield, with several more joining from Coraopolis and other suburbs south of the city. Those who live in Bloomfield have all lived there fewer than 10 years. About half of meeting members listed their age between mid-20s and early 40s.
When asked to place a dot along a spectrum of Columbus’ legacy being personally important or personally problematic and harmful, community members mostly placed their dots along the farthest reaches of each side of spectrum. Only three placed their dots in the middle, although those all leaned towards negative views of Columbus.
Community disagreement over the legacy of Christopher Columbus has a history in Pittsburgh. The statue of Columbus that has stood in Schenley Park since 1955 is now wrapped in plastic during an impasse between the city, which voted to remove it, and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, who were granted an injunction against the removal.
Those who spoke in favor of Columbus Day and the parade cited Italian-American heritage and previous discrimination against Italians in the U.S.
Basil Russo, an Italian American who has never lived in Bloomfield but has participated in the Columbus Day Parade for about six years, spoke about the lynching of 11 Italians that occurred in 1871 in New Orleans. Those lynchings, as well as the anti-Italian sentiment of the era — particularly against southern Italians, who were especially discriminated against at the time and even lynched — led to the first Columbus Day in 1872 as an attempt to quiet Italian-American outrage.
“Columbus Day is the day that the Italian-American community has chosen to celebrate its heritage. We want to celebrate our contributions to America. We want to acknowledge the sacrifices that our ancestors have made. It’s our way of saying thank you to our country,” Russo says. “The history of Columbus is very, very important and intricately tied to Italian-American history.”
Russo also cited the falsehood that Columbus never owned slaves and that Columbus adopted an Indigenous Taino child as his claim that Columbus was a good person.
Columbus began the slave trade of Indigenous people by Europeans, subjected enslaved Indigenous people to sexual abuse, and decimated the native Taino population on Hispaniola. He did adopt a Taino adolescent, who would later be known as Diego Colón.
“Honoring Columbus, holding a parade in his honor, is nothing more than a celebration of genocide, and educating our children and our citizens on a sanitized narrative of what colonialism was really like,” says Benjamin Orr, who is a descendant of Indigenous Americans. “I don’t believe that we should celebrate this man. I believe we should celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as many other states are starting to do.”
Many community members expressed a desire to respect multiple heritages, including Brian Tedeschi, an Italian-American who does not want to dismiss the contributions and legacies of Italians and Italian-Americans. Tedeschi is hopeful that community members will find a way to compromise, but others expressed uncertainty since Columbus’ actions and legacy were directly harmful to Indigenous people.
“As a Mexican person, the legacy of Christopher Columbus feels always like a weight, like a violation of my existence,” says A. Ene, who asked to use a pseudonym. “I, as an immigrant and a gay person, am all for celebrating diversity and heritage. I am hoping there are ways to celebrate these in a way that acknowledges the harm done, and that don’t uplift colonizer and white supremacy structures.”
Kimberly Rooney is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.
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