Wilmington removes Columbus, Rodney statues amid threats
WILMINGTON – The city announced Friday morning that it was removing statues of famed Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and Delaware Declaration of Independence signer Caesar Rodney from public display to allow for an “overdue discussion.”
The removal of Rodney in particular is a momentous event, as the legislator is inextricably linked to Delaware history and the statue is a focal point of the city that has been a frequent image in marketing material.
Wilmington’s decision comes as cities and states around the country deal with whether to continue to publicly display statues and monuments to controversial historical figures. Protesters who have taken to American streets following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer have taken aim at such displays, often tearing them down or vandalizing them.
While most of the outrage has been directed at Confederate figures, particularly in Southern states, other figures are coming under scrutiny for their treatment of minorities. In Richmond, Va., a statue of Columbus was torn down and tossed into a lake while another in Boston was beheaded. The explorer has long drawn ire for his recorded violence against and enslavement of indigenous people in his travels, and critics decry the idea that he “discovered” lands that had long been inhabited. However, he has also grown through the centuries to be a symbol of Italian courage and ingenuity in traversing the Atlantic Ocean and is a symbol of pride in many Italian American communities.
In Wilmington, the Columbus statue on Pennsylvania Avenue was removed Friday morning, in part because the city has reportedly been monitoring social media threats against it this weekend. It had stood in front of Luther Towers in a namesake Columbus Square since 1957.
Later this weekend, city officials also planned to remove the statue of Rodney from its spot in namesake Rodney Square where it has stood since 1923. Like Columbus, Rodney’s family were originally Italian immigrants.
The Founding Father is revered in state history for riding through the night of July 1, 1776, and arriving in Philadelphia on July 2 to cast the deciding vote in declaring the United States independence from Great Britain. His name adorns a public school system as well as buildings around the state. Rodney’s ride is commemorated on Delaware’s state quarter and he was a featured part of Delaware’ bicenntennial celebration in 1976, when the state produced a 31-page history titled “Patriot: Delaware’s Hero For All Times and All Seasons.”
Like Columbus, however, Rodney has a controversial past that is receiving more public debate amid the protests. He owned 200 slaves who worked his Kent County plantation for the entirety of his life, but he also ordered in his will that they be freed upon his death. Rodney also unsuccessfully attempted to pass legislation to prohibit the importation of slaves into Delaware in 1766 when he was Speaker of the Delaware General Assembly, although the reasoning for that bill is unclear as Rodney then owned slaves. The state has rarely shed light on the plight of Rodney’s slaves through the centuries, and indeed the 1976 history never mentions them.
In a press release announcing the city’s decision, Mayor Mike Purzycki did not say whether the statues will ever return to public display. The mayor said that while they are in storage, his office is “taking the opportunity while the statues are removed to engage individuals and groups in a discussion with him their perspectives.”
“We cannot erase history, as painful as it may be, but we can certainly discuss history with each other and determine together what we value and what we feel is appropriate to memorialize,” Purzycki said in a statement. “We can determine together how we should proceed as a city when it comes to public displays. In this period of awakening for our city, state, and country, we should be listening more to each other and building a more just city and a better America.”
When asked about the city’s decision at his Friday press conference, Gov. John Carney said that it was “disappointing that it’s come to that but … I wouldn’t want to see a damage done to either of those statues.” He noted that the Delaware Law Enforcement Memorial in Dover was vandalized this week.
Carney also said that he thought it was important to have “a conversation about our past” and “come together as a community about what the future looks like with respect to those symbols.”
By Jacob Owens