Philly's Columbus Statue is Out of the Box—So is the Discussion About His LegacyHistorians in the News
tags: colonialism, racism, memorials, statues, Philadelphia, monuments, public history, Christopher Columbus
In a 2020 TEDx Talk, historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries described what some people do when they learn about the more problematic aspects of American history.
Rather than addressing the ugliness directly, Jeffries said, some try to excuse the sins of the past, including “just making stuff up.” Others try to “rationalize it” by going so far as compartmentalizing the truth. Then there are those who “pretend the past didn’t happen” — even when presented with well-documented historical records.
For the past couple of years in South Philadelphia, though, they’ve tried a different approach: Hide the hard history in a box, paint it the green, white, and red colors of the Italian flag, and hope for the best.
In this case, the history comes in the form of the 22-foot statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza, which has been the subject of a two-year legal battle over whether it should be removed and placed in storage. The statue has been boxed in plywood since June 2020 to deter protests.
On Sunday night, Philadelphia complied with a Commonwealth Court order to remove the box that has concealed the statue. Some of the statue’s most ardent supporters were so excited that they kept pieces of it as souvenirs.
Coincidentally, the next day, Richmond, Va.’s last Confederate statue was removed. The statue of Ambrose P. Hill, a Confederate lieutenant general in the Civil War, was plucked up by a crane and deposited onto a flatbed truck after a series of court challenges by his indirect descendants.
By my scorecard, that’s a win for Richmond and a loss for Philly.
But whether you’re booing or cheering, both events represent a kind of reckoning with history that is still underway — for Columbus, it was the false narrative about him discovering America, and for Hill, it was the false assertion that there was some nobility in the Confederacy’s attempt to destroy the nation to preserve slavery.
After watching his TEDx Talk, I called Jeffries, who’s a professor at Ohio State University, to chat about what recently transpired in both cities, and why addressing the truth in our nation’s past remains a lightning rod.
For starters, he said, quoting his friend, the literary performer and educator Reggie Gibson, “Americans actually hate history.”
“What we love is nostalgia,” Jeffries said, “stories about the past that make us feel comfortable about the present.”