Christopher Columbus statue in Columbia removed, mayor cites fear of vandalism

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Bristow Marchant
·3 min read
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A statue of Christopher Columbus has been removed from beside Columbia’s historic canal as statues of controversial figures have become the focus of protests nationwide.

The city of Columbia removed the statue early Friday morning from an area of Riverfront Park, where the explorer’s statue had stood near a popular walking trail between the Columbia canal and the Congaree River.

The statue was dismembered and taken down in phases, and by 10 a.m. only Columbus’ feet remained atop a brick pedestal from which the plaques had been removed. A backhoe later prised the base of the statue from the pedestal and toppled the two feet to the ground.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said the statue was removed because of fears of vandalism. He said paint had been thrown on the statue more than once in the past week, and he feared more serious damage would be done to the statue.

“I want its future to be determined by the people of Columbia, not a personal protest in the middle of the night,” Benjamin said.

Images of the Italian explorer long credited with discovering America have become the latest targets of spreading protests across the country against a history of racism and injustice. In Minnesota, protesters pulled down a statue of Columbus outside the state capitol this week. Another statue in Richmond, Va., was pulled down and thrown into a lake in a city park. City officials in Boston removed another Columbus statue after it was beheaded.

For some, Columbus has become a symbol of the colonization of the Americas that displaced and killed untold numbers of native peoples. Some local and state governments have even begun to replace Columbus’ titular holiday in October with an Indigenous Peoples’ Day honoring Native American cultures instead.

The statue was a gift to the city from the South Carolina State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Benjamin said he informed the DAR and local members of the Order of the Sons of Italy about the decision before the statue came down. He invited citizens to have a discussion about where the statue, now in storage, will go next.

“We’ll determine the most fitting way to display it,” he said. “It may go back where it was, it may go somewhere else.”

A plaque on the statue read, “This gift to Columbia is a monument to the courageous spirit of that Genoese (Italy) mariner who challenged the unknown to discover this land, now the hope of the world and the haven of freedom for all.”

In recent years, controversy has swarmed around several Confederate-era statues that stand on the State House grounds in Columbia. Besides the prominent Confederate Soldiers’ Monument along Gervais Street, the State House hosts statues of Wade Hampton, a former governor and senator as well as prominent slave owner and Confederate general whose election in 1876 is seen as the end of South Carolina’s post-war Reconstruction period, when freed African Americans held the most sway in state government.

The capitol grounds also hold a statue of Benjamin Tillman, a proponent of lynching who, as governor, enacted the 1895 constitution that effectively disenfranchised many African American voters. A state lawmaker has moved to take Tillman’s statue down, and Clemson University has asked the Legislature to rename its Tillman Hall.

The protests against such statues come on the heels of nationwide protests against racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer three weeks ago, including marches in Columbia the weekend of May 30-31 that ended in clashes with police and acts of vandalism against downtown businesses.

The name of the city of Columbia itself is derived from Columbus, but Benjamin cited John Gervais, the legislator credited with founding Columbia as the state capital, who himself took the name from a poem sent to George Washington by Phyllis Wheatley, a freedwoman, that used Columbia poetically as the name of the new nation.

“Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales/For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails,” Wheatley’s poem reads.

Reporter John Monk contributed to this story.