For the fourth year in a row, Chicago’s Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans will mark Columbus Day while the city’s three statues of Christopher Columbus remain in storage, hidden from public view.
Ron Onesti, the group’s president, said it will be painful to once again celebrate the legacy of the Italian explorer hired by the Spanish king and queen in 1492 to find a westward route to China, India and Japan who nevertheless ended up in what is now North America, knowing that the statues have been gathering dust for nearly 1,172 days.
Mayor Brandon Johnson has been noncommittal about the fate of the statues, saying in June that he would follow the “direction” of the people of Chicago about their ultimate fate.
Despite the anguish felt by many in Chicago’s Italian community over the statues, celebrations of the federal holiday will continue, ensuring that future generations understand the legacy of Chicago’s Italian community, Onesti said. The group’s 71st annual Columbus Day parade steps off at 12:30 p.m. Monday from State Street and Wacker Drive, capping a full weekend of events.
“That’s the key,” Onesti said. “That’s why we do this.”
Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot removed the statues on July 24, 2020, after the statue in Grant Park became a flashpoint for protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of massive social justice protests touched off by the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans sued the city in July 2021 in an attempt to get the statue of Columbus returned to Arrigo Park in Little Italy on the city’s West Side based on a 1973 agreement the committee inked with the Chicago Park District to display the statue.
Onesti said he was looking forward to settlement talks beginning to resolve that case, which has survived several attempts by the city to dismiss it.
“I feel confident an amicable solution can be reached,” Onesti said, adding that he was pleased with the responsiveness of Johnson’s administration.
A statement from the mayor’s office acknowledged that settlement talks are ongoing, and declined to comment further.
The city faces a separate lawsuit from a former attorney for the Chicago Park District who said Lightfoot berated him using obscene language and blocked a deal the Park District made to allow a Columbus statue to be displayed in the 2021 Columbus Day parade. Lightfoot denied making those remarks.
The city’s third statue of Columbus spent 100 years on a plaza near the intersection of 92nd Street, Exchange Avenue and South Chicago Avenue on the city’s Far South Side. It was also removed.
Although progressive groups urged city officials to permanently mothball the statues, which they said celebrated White supremacy and the slaughter of indigenous Americans, Lightfoot vowed that the statues’ pedestals would be empty only temporarily.
But Lightfoot never moved to reinstall the statues, acknowledging they would immediately become a magnet for protests that could turn violent, requiring around-the-clock police protection.
More than a year ago, a commission charged with reviewing Chicago’s more than 500 public monuments as part of a “a racial healing and historical reckoning project” recommended that 13 monuments be removed, including the city’s three Columbus statues. No monuments have been removed as a result of the commission’s work.
The commission was designed to “provide a vehicle to address the hard truths of Chicago’s racial history” and detail how the city could “memorialize Chicago’s true and complete history.”
That reckoning remains a work in progress, more than three years after the conflagration that prompted city officials to remove the Columbus statues.