Artwork by the Denver Black Love Mural Festival currently decorates Civic Center Park — and also protects some of the monuments there. But art might not be enough to save one statue.
In 1970, Alfred and Anne Adamo donated a statue by William Joseph to the City of Denver, to honor Colorado as the first state to recognize Columbus Day as a holiday.
That was back in 1907. In 2020, the Colorado Legislature voted to replace Columbus Day with Frances Xavier Cabrini Day, honoring the Italian-born saint who came to this country and did many good works, including opening a school and an orphanage in Colorado. Denver had already done away with Columbus Day in 2001, after years of protests and debates over the explorer's genocidal legacy; it was replaced with César Chávez Day.
And this statue could soon be gone, too. It's already off the city's public arts website; Michael Chavez, public art manager for Denver Arts & Venues, says he decided to take that description down while the city considers requests for the "potential renaming of landmarks and other public spaces in the city named for individuals associated with racist groups or ideologies." Mayor Michael Hancock announced that effort on June 19, after delegates to the Master Community Association of Stapleton voted to change the name of that neighborhood, and as statues across the country were being pulled down during the Black Lives Matter protests.
“Our public spaces belong to everyone, and everyone should feel respected in these places. Hearing from our community at this pivotal time in our history will ensure that our city’s parks, spaces and places represent our values and the equity and diversity of our city,” Hancock said in announcing the effort.
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The Agency of Human Rights and Community Partnerships advisory board will consider requests made to Renaming@denvergov.org, consulting with residents, neighborhood groups and the History Colorado State Historian's Council; so far, the group has been contacted about other Stapleton-related spots, but hasn't heard complaints about Columbus.
It will: Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval has already said that she'd like to change the name of Columbus Park in north Denver to what so many residents already call it: La Raza Park. And Tay Anderson, the Denver Public School Board member who'd tweeted an early warning regarding the Stapleton name, has also tweeted a warning to Hancock about the Columbus statue: “I would honestly hate for the community to have to take it down. There is some beautiful art around it that doesn’t deserve to be damaged. PLUS the grass."
There's also a Change.org petition to remove the statue from Civic Center Park. "Columbus proved to be a greedy, cruel invader, a reckless adventurer and a fraud in that he never planted the flag of Spain in North America," it reads. "Eventually, others brought word back to Europe of Columbus’ horrific treatment of the population amounting to genocide and in 1499 he was arrested, chained up and brought back to Spain and stripped of his royal titles. He does not deserve a statue in our beautiful city. "
In contrast, here's the plaque that accompanies the Columbus statue, which was placed in Civic Center Park exactly fifty years ago today:
In Honor of Christopher Columbus
(Cristoforo Colombo 1451-1506)
Italian Visionary and Great Navigator
This bold explorer was the first European
to set foot on uncharted land, on a West Indies
beach in 1492. His four voyages brought Europe
and the Americas together, forever changing
history. A new nation
was to rise. A new
Democracy was born.
Alfred P. Adamo and Anne E. Adamo
June 24, 1970
But this controversy might have a relatively easy solution — the exact opposite of what solved a debate over the Sand Creek Massacre being listed as a "battle" on the Civil War Monument at the Colorado Capitol. In that case, a plaque was added below the statue, one signed off on by lawmakers, historians and descendants of Arapaho and Cheyenne killed at Sand Creek, explaining the grim realities of what a Congressional investigation had determined was a "massacre" back in 1865.
Would removing the Columbus plaque also remove objections to the statue remaining in Civic Center Park? Denver City Council member Chris Hinds thinks so. "The sculptor is passed, but the sculptor's son says he believes the plaque should be removed," Hinds says. "And it was never his father's intent for the likeness to be Christopher Columbus."
Nor was the plaque part of the original piece. "My job is all about learning, and understanding different perspectives," Hinds continues. "My first understanding was that the whole statue needs to go. But as I recently learned, that isn't the case." For members of Denver's indigenous community, he learned, the big problem is the plaque. In fact, the American Indian Movement had been attempting to remove it since at least 1990.
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"This is the moment for us to take down that plaque, and I'm willing to say that without an additional stakeholder group," Hinds says. "Maybe we put up a different plaque. Maybe there's a way for us to incorporate our current interpretation of history into that plaque."
Maybe the discussion of what that plaque should say would be a chance to "bring communities together, as opposed to further divide communities," he notes. "Denver has an opportunity to be a shining beacon, whereas many other cities don't have that."
And fifty years after that plaque was installed, he says, it's time.
Update: This story was updated on June 24 to remove an incorrect name for the statue and add quotes from Councilman Chris Hinds.