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The Christopher Columbus statue in Providence (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Zirkel)

A movement to remove statues and rename buildings that honor slave owners and colonizers continues to sweep across America as the nation seeks to create distance from a dark history of racism and genocide.

One of the statues in question is the Christopher Columbus figure that once stood in Providence’s Elmwood section. In June, city officials put the statue, a frequent target of vandalism, in storage until a decision is made to determine its future. While Columbus, an Italian explorer, is celebrated for “discovering” the Americas for Europe, detractors say his legacy is tarnished due to his history of colonialism, slavery and genocide of indigenous people.

No timetable has been set yet for a six-member Special Committee for Commemorative Works to submit recommendations to city officials on what to do with the statue, says Providence City Council President Sabina Matos, a Rhode Island College alumna.

Providence City Council President Sabina MatosHowever, Matos ‘01 (pictured left) thinks the controversy over the statue presents an opportunity for conversation.
“As a black immigrant from the Dominican Republic, the history I learned about Columbus was one-sided. I knew nothing about his history with genocide or slavery when I lived in the Dominican Republic,” she says. “That’s another reason why we need Black history in curricula so students can know about that history.”

Yet Matos says she can also understand why those with Italian roots would want the Columbus statue to remain where it’s been for the last century.

“People who are asking for the removal of the statue should acknowledge that it was a donation that has historic value in that neighborhood,” she says. “Italians were discriminated against and suffered mistreatment in this country, too. For Italians to have a statue of someone of their descent celebrated makes them feel accepted and recognized. 
Unfortunately, in this country it’s all or nothing; it’s either good or bad. We don’t take the time to understand each other’s plight.”

Nonetheless, RIC Professor Emeritus of History Robert Cvornyek says statues such as Columbus’ were never created to communicate history.

“I don’t think the people who erected the statue were trying to present the history of Columbus,” says Cvornyek, who taught history at RIC for nearly 30 years. “It was to project an idea that they were in power, that they had arrived, and their thoughts were more important than those of others. That’s the way I’ve always approached the topic in my classes with students.”

Anthony Carlino, an adjunct professor of history at RIC, concurs.

“I’m Italian but I think there shouldn’t be a Columbus Day,” says Carlino. “There are other things that could be celebrated, such as the day that slaves were officially considered free.”

Similar considerations over history and cultural sensitivity led Matos and fellow city councilors to unanimously vote in June on a resolution urging Rhode Island to erase the “Providence Plantations” portion of the state’s name. If the Rhode Island Assembly approves, the name change could be put before voters to decide.

“By changing the name, we are not forgetting our history, we are simply removing something that no longer represents the values and morals our state should embody,” Matos says. “We will never forget our role in slavery and the racist institutions that have plagued our country for so long. But it is time for us to move forward with a name that better represents who we would like to be.”

Providence city councilors are also expected to consider a Providence School Board resolution calling for Esek Hopkins Middle School to be renamed. Hopkins, a commander-in-chief for the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War, has come under scrutiny for his involvement in Rhode Island’s slave trade, particularly his shipmaster role during an overseas voyage in the 1760s that led to the death of 109 Africans.

“Put yourself in the position of a parent who is sending his or her child to a school that’s named after a person involved with the slave trade,” Cvornyek says. “There is a history of hurt and mistrust.”

For that reason, Cvornyek says Rhode Island should consider renaming monuments and buildings after people who have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place.

“As an educator, it would be thrilling to have monuments named after fellow educators or social justice warriors in the state,” he says. “There are plenty of those types of people to choose from in Rhode Island. The fact that we are having a debate about this is a long time coming. It’s important for people in this divided nation to say they’re no longer buying into a particular version of what history should be; they’re exercising the power to change collective memory.”