No more schools or statues for human traffickers, for racists and the religiously intolerant.
First, the statue of Christopher Columbus on Lenox Lane in Lancaster city must come down. While we are doing this, we also should seek to reexamine other sites of importance — schools, parks, monuments — and the histories for which they are named. If they honor or glorify individuals with significant and irredeemable sins — people who were simply not about what we are about — then we should replace them or change their names.
There’s no space to equivocate about these things. The time has come for us to engage with our history, instead of just taking it for granted.
While the statue of Christopher Columbus that stains the Lancaster County Courthouse sits on county property and is therefore not subject to our authority, the members of City Council have resolved that it is not welcome in our city. We have formally requested that it be moved elsewhere.
Here’s why: To the best of our knowledge, based on primary and secondary source documents from the historical record, Christopher Columbus was not an exceptional navigator. He was not an incredible or magnanimous leader of people. He arrived on the island that is now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, sold Indigenous people into slavery, engaged in forced religious conversions, and mismanaged the colony to the degree that he was at one point stripped of his titles and governorship.
Even the notion that Columbus is solely responsible for the age of exploration that led to the colonization of the Americas is questionable. More significantly, while he happened upon an island, he is not the founder of America. It is defamation to the deserving to assign him more credit for what exists on this landmass than the American patriots who fought for independence from Britain, much less the enslaved Africans and their descendants who built this country with their sweat and blood.
Best evidence seems to suggest that Cristobal Colon, as he was known to the Spanish for whom he sailed, was a wind-tilted human trafficker. Nothing about that earns him a place of honor in Lancaster city, where we are proud of our religious tolerance, where we strive for greater racial equity. Nothing about his conduct while among the living has earned him a place at our county courthouse. I would encourage the reader to read the writings of Francisco de Bobadilla or Bartolomé de Las Casas on Columbus’ tenure in the Caribbean and ask themselves what the record suggests regarding law, order, fairness and mercy.
Statuary is not simple history — it is glorification, commemoration. To act as though the goal is simply the purveyance of truth fails a simple smell test: Ask defenders of the Columbus statue how they would feel about adding a plaque aside the statue that described his misdeeds and the number of people he was involved in enslaving, including the very young Indigenous girls who became sex slaves.
To raise this person up as one of the heroes of our society, apparently deserving of statuary honor, does not say about our country what we think it does. His behavior was in line with some of our nation’s most serious acts of intolerance, racism and violence. For those of us who hold the belief that we can wrestle with these issues and become a better, more just, nation, Columbus is a poor figurehead.
No one with a functioning capacity for object permanence need worry about Columbus being erased from history — his name remains in thousands of books and in thousands of documents and official records. But yes, we are going to stop holding high human traffickers, regardless of the myths of greatness that surround them.
This may lead to some uncomfortable conversations, and some tense moments in our discourse. As some have asked, “If we remove the statues of persons like Columbus or Robert E. Lee, what about all the other individuals who owned slaves? Do we have to take down their statues, too?” You might not like my answer.
I am proud to be an American. I am not willing to participate in the charade of an unevaluated history where we pretend that all actions are morally justifiable by the period in which they occurred. Replacing names and monuments is not about altering America’s past, though I might gently offer that many of those who feel it erases our past are not intimately familiar with its foibles and vicissitudes.
Rather, the time has come to chart a new course for America’s — and Lancaster’s — future. Our Black and Latino families and their children, who make up 60% of this city, should not be forced to live in the shadow of men who would have beaten and sold them, or allowed others to do so.
To go further, there is no vocabulary to express the irony of Black children going to schools named for individuals who would have whipped them for learning to read, or thought them less than human. We should then also attend to the growing community calls to rename our schools, when we are finished with Mr. Columbus.
What can be the controversy here? My great hope for us is that one day my community can unite around the idea that racism, sex trafficking, slavery, cruelty and plunder do not represent us or our highest values, but apparently we are not quite there yet. The time to get there is now.
Ismail Smith-Wade-El is president of Lancaster City Council.