Chicago mayor ordered Columbus statues removed during 2020 unrest. A lawsuit by Italian Americans claims that violated a Park District contract

Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS
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CHICAGO — Italian Americans seeking the return of Chicago’s Christopher Columbus statue to its former pedestal in Little Italy allege that Mayor Lori Lightfoot interfered with a Park District contract to keep the monument on display “in perpetuity,” according to a recently filed complaint.

Lightfoot has been newly added as a defendant in a lawsuit the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans filed against the Chicago Park District last July asserting that the district violated a deal signed in 1973 to display the Columbus statue in Little Italy when they took down the statue in summer 2020.

Lightfoot has said she ordered the removal of Columbus statues after activists forcibly attempted to remove the prominent statue of Columbus in Grant Park, leading to violent clashes between police and protesters.

Nearly a week later, Lightfoot took down Columbus statues in Grant Park and Little Italy. Lightfoot later removed a lesser-known statue in the South Chicago neighborhood.

Columbus has been condemned by activists around the country who point to the Italian explorer’s mistreatment of indigenous people after he landed in the Americas in 1492.

Many Italian Americans prize the statues of the explorer as an expression of their mainstream American identity.

Lightfoot initially resisted calls to take down Columbus statues. Comparing the debate over Columbus statues to the same argument over monuments to Confederate Army figures being removed in other cities, Lightfoot said she favors acting “to not try to erase history, but to embrace it full-on.”

But she ordered the removals after the unrest at Grant Park.

Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said his group sued the Park District after officials failed to communicate with them about the statue and its fate.

“We as Chicagoans feel the process has not been respected,” Onesti said. “Our city’s art, our city’s historic elements, should not be at a whim if some vocal minority says so.”

The lawsuit claims that a Columbus statue committee paid the Park District more than $10,000 in 1973 “for the purpose of maintaining in perpetuity” the Columbus statue.

Initially, the lawsuit did not name Lightfoot or Chicago as defendants but the Italian Americans committee recently argued that the mayor should be added because of her actions ordering the statue’s removal, which a judge granted. It also alleges that she has continued to interfere with the contract.

A spokeswoman for the Law Department said it “will review the filed complaint and will have no further comment as the matter is now in litigation.”

The lawsuit over the Columbus statue is not the only ongoing fallout from the mayor’s decision to take down the statues.

After Lightfoot removed the Columbus statues, she created a review process for controversial city monuments that she said would be part of “a racial healing and historical reckoning project.”

But nearly a year and a half later, the city’s monuments commission has not yet issued its final report and recommendations, leaving the conversation in a state of limbo even though it was originally supposed to be done by December 2020.

City officials have said they expect the committee to finish its work in the first quarter of 2022.

Last February, the mayor’s commission on monuments flagged statues of Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley, as well as a Benjamin Franklin statue, a police memorial tied to the Haymarket Riot and a statue of Leif Ericson at Humboldt Park, as potentially problematic, but did not make final recommendations about what should happen.

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