The recent publicity surrounding the call for removal of the Christopher Columbus bust in Lancaster city prompts me to provide a local and historical background for having this bust created and installed here.
In the 1970s, an Italian immigrant, Antonio Palumbo, had an idea to leave a legacy of the contributions of Italian Americans to his adopted city of Lancaster. Palumbo was a naturalized citizen who served honorably in the U.S. Army during wartime. In peacetime, he was very active in helping serve his Italian American community — especially by creating a “Citizenship School” with the Donegal chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Italian American Citizens Club of Lancaster. This school held classes at Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School on West Chestnut Street and operated for several years. It helped between 50 and 70 immigrants each year become U.S. citizens and learn English.
Requests were made to the city for support to erect a statue of Columbus — not to honor Columbus himself, but to represent a legacy of all the Italian immigrant contributions to their adopted community. These included the laborers who toiled on the railroads, helped build the Griest building, laid the tracks for the trolleys, and helped build community through their tailor shops, barber shops, shoe repair shops, cafes and restaurants. Later, they became lawyers, doctors and religious leaders, fighting discrimination and bias all the way — while never giving up and remaining loyal to their community and country.
So in 1988 — in deference to Palumbo’s persistent laboring for recognition of the Italian American contributions — then-Mayor Art Morris proposed an advisory committee to study the proposal for Lancaster to recognize the Italian American contributions through a statue of Columbus that would coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage.
The committee met and decided on several ways to handle this request:
1. The idea of a statue to coincide with the 500th anniversary was viable.
2. If it was authorized, no public funds would be used.
3. A bust rather than a full-sized statue would be appropriate.
4. A local company would have to be commissioned to design and build the bust. ART Research and Technology of Lancaster (an internationally acclaimed company) was selected to mold and produce the bust.
The most significant decision, which is little known, is that the bust was made in the image and likeness of Palumbo, in recognition of his dedication and loyalty to the city, community and country. It also recognizes the legacy of the cultural, social, educational and physical contributions to this wonderful community of ours made by Italian immigrants.
Perhaps an explanation of this context on the pedestal would be in order, rather than its removal.
The statue placed in Lenox Lane did help spur some additional improvements in a previously unused part of the city. The intent was to inspire an “art alley” and have other artists add local pieces — certainly not to remove and destroy this one.
This is indeed an opportunity to further our local history, understand the reasoning behind this bust and — with educated input — we could honor others by enhancing Lenox Lane with other sculptures of local history represented in one form or another.
One final note: This column is not a defense of Columbus or his recorded bad actions, nor is it intended to be confrontational in any way. It is merely a factual description of the intent this sculpture represents in Lancaster history. As an Italian American growing up in Lancaster’s 7th Ward, I experienced bigotry and prejudice directed against my neighbors and, in some cases, at me. And I would not want any of that associated with this op-ed. Thank you for understanding.
James J. Lombardo is retired executive director of the Governor's Center for Local Government Services and an active member of the Italian American community in Lancaster.