Christopher Columbus has been honored for centuries in the United States, with many states, including Illinois, celebrating Columbus Day on the second Monday of October each year. The U.S. is home to 149 monuments dedicated to Columbus. And while Columbus technically did not discover the ‘new world,’ since millions of people already lived in modern-day America, his journeys marked the beginning of centuries of exploration and colonization of North and South America.
Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who set out from Spain and headed west with a crew of three ships in hopes of finding a new route to India. On October 12, 1492, after 36 days of sailing westward across the Atlantic, Columbus and several crewmen set foot on an island in the present-day Bahamas, claiming it for Spain. Columbus made a total of four voyages to the Caribbean and South America between 1492 and 1504.
In Illinois, Columbus is recognized with four statues and the 135-acre Columbus Park in the western Chicago neighborhood of Austin. Three statues are located in Chicago, and one is in Peoria. But as civil unrest mounted across the country following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, there were calls to remove statues of Columbus and any other monuments of historical figures deemed controversial or discriminatory. Columbus became an offensive symbol seemingly overnight, with protestors saying the Italian explorer was responsible for genocide and exploitation of Native Americans and indigenous peoples.
Violent protests erupted at Grant Park in wake of the Floyd murder, and the protestors vandalized and attempted to take down the Columbus statue in Grant Park in Chicago. With numerous injuries and hospitalizations being reported and seeing no end in sight to the protests and violence, Mayor Lori Lightfoot citied public safety concerns and had the statues at Grant Park and Arrigo Park removed in the overnight hours.
A third statue in south Chicago at Drake Fountain was removed several days later, and all of the statues remain in storage to this day.
The statue at Bradley Park in Peoria was taken down in October 2020 and put into storage after town hall meetings and a 4-2 vote of the Peoria Park District Board. Recently, the Park Board and members of the local neighborhood have had conversations about erecting a new statue in the old Columbus spot. The West Bluff Council and Uplands Neighborhood Association have advocated for placing a statue of Hebe, a minor Greek goddess of youth, in Bradley Park. However, that request was unanimously denied. Advocates claim a statue of Hebe once existed in the park until the late 1950s. It was reportedly removed for repairs after it was hit by a car and never put back. Park Board members stated they want to avoid going through another controversy like they had with the Columbus statue. Cost concerns were also cited.
Last year, a task force in Chicago recommended the Columbus statues remain down, along with bringing down some other monuments. Mayor Lightfoot remained under fire from the local Italian American community, which urged her to restore the landmarks to their proper locations.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of selected ‘offendedness’ and ‘woke culture’ that has permeated modern society, as Christopher Columbus statues are toppled and Columbus Day parades scrapped, the state of Illinois still celebrates Columbus Day as a state holiday.