A Pennsylvania court ruled Friday that the city of Philadelphia must remove the plywood box covering a statue of Christopher Columbus that in recent years has been a source of contentious debates about colonialism and heritage.
The 146-year-old marble statue – among the first in the United States dedicated to the Italian explorer who sailed to the Americas on behalf of Spain more than 500 years ago – has been particularly divisive following the of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, which sparked protests against racial injustice and renewed conversations about polarizing landmarks.
On Friday, a panel of Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judges overturned a 2021 ruling that had allowed the city to keep its box around the statue, ending authorities’ attempt to hide what it believed to be a problematic object.
Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, who made the ruling, wrote that the city’s objection to the statue’s ‘message’ was ‘somewhat opaque’ and that if officials wanted to change that, they could do so with a plaque .
She added that the city accepted the statue as a donation in 1876, the country’s centenary, meaning it had a responsibility to preserve the figure of Christopher Columbus, which was designated a historical object in 2017.
“The Columbus statue,” wrote Judge Leavitt, “is not city property like, say, a city snowblower is.”
Kevin Lessard, spokesman for city mayor Jim Kenney, who sought to remove the statue from Marconi Plaza in 2020 following racial justice protests, said in a statement that “we are very disappointed with the court decision,” although he said the city would abide by it.
“We continue to believe that the statue of Christopher Columbus, which has been a source of controversy in Philadelphia, should be removed from its current location at Marconi Plaza,” Lessard said. “We continue to review the latest court ruling and are working to comply with court orders, including unboxing.”
The group that sought to preserve the statue and sued the city to unwrap it, Friends of Marconi Plaza, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Friday night. But an attorney representing the group, George Bochetto, told the Philadelphia Inquirer he was “delighted” with the court’s decision.
The legal back-and-forth surrounding the 10-foot-tall statue came at a time when other statues are being torn down in US cities including Boston; Richmond, Virginia; and St. Paul, Minn.
While supporters of the Philadelphia statue argued it was a source of pride for people of Italian descent, critics said Columbus’ arrival in the New World led to genocide and the Exploitation of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas – A Story Devoid of Reasons. celebrate man.
Mr. Kenney appeared to agree with that sentiment on June 15, 2020, when he wrote to the city’s Director of Public Arts that “Columbus’s history must be considered when considering the opportunity to erect or maintain a monument to that person,” according to court documents. .
The Philadelphia Historical Commission held a public hearing on the matter later that summer, with more than 180 people voicing their opinions for six hours.
The commission recommended that the statue be removed “to enhance public safety and protect the statue,” according to court documents.
But the Friends of Marconi Plaza quickly challenged that directive, saying in court that members of the group had been “active guardians” of the square for 10 years and had a vested interest in the future of the statue.
The city argued that because the individuals in the group did not own property adjacent to the Columbus statue, they could not demonstrate a “particular impact on their use and enjoyment of their property” if the statue was removed. The argument did not seem to convince the judges.
Still, Mr. Lessard, the mayor’s spokesman, said Friday that the city “will continue to explore our options for a path forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances.” from everyone’s different backgrounds.