If you attended elementary or middle school in Columbus, Ohio, during the early nineteen-nineties, you most likely took a field trip downtown, to the banks of the Scioto River, to visit the Santa Maria Museum. Docked just offshore, it was a full-size replica of Christopher Columbus’s flagship, unveiled in 1992 to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic, in 1492. My parents—who wrestled to serve as a barrier between their children and the sanitization of the country’s history, however impossible the task—never signed the permission slip for me to go on the trip. On the designated day of the fifth grade, I stayed behind, in a dimly lit classroom, thumbing through highlighted literature that my father had given me to read. There were people in the city who believed the ship to be a marvel, something beautiful enough to obscure the history of the place where it rested, or the blood that was shed in the name of conquest. On the day that the Santa Maria was officially dedicated, a large crowd gathered along the river to celebrate. In the street by a nearby park, more than a hundred people protested. From the ship’s deck, a visitor could look up toward the mouth of the Scioto, to an area that was once known as Salt-Lick Town, where, in 1774, soldiers from Virginia opened fire on a village of indigenous men, women, and children, killing ninety-six people. There were no memorials for this chapter of our history. Just the replica of the boat, casting a long shadow.
We are at the doorstep of an era in which the once impossible is becoming newly possible. The Santa Maria replica was pulled from the Scioto River in the early twenty-tens—not because of what it represented, or because of the people who’d spent the previous decades calling for its removal, but to make room for renovations along the river. Other monuments to Christopher Columbus remain woven into the fabric of the city named in his honor. The most prominent of three statues, a twenty-two-foot, three-ton likeness cast in bronze, was sent, in 1955, by the citizens of Genoa, Italy, and has towered outside of City Hall ever since. In August of 2017, in the wake of the violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as monuments to Confederate leaders began to be taken down elsewhere in the country, protesters in Columbus gathered outside of City Hall to demand the statue’s removal. The city’s mayor, Andrew Ginther, responded by stating that such protests were distracting from the “real problem,” which was the racial divide in America. The removal of a statue wouldn’t address that problem, Ginther decided then. Three years later, in the midst of renewed calls for monuments across the country to fall, his tune has changed. Last week, Columbus State Community College announced that it would remove a Columbus statue that has stood on its campus since 1988. Two days later, Ginther announced that the City Hall statue would be removed “as soon as possible.”