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Columbus Statues Shouldn’t Return, Balbo Monument Should Be Taken Down, City Committee Says

A city committee spent more than a year meeting with neighbors and community groups as it reviewed what should be done with controversial monuments. It released its report Friday.

A Christopher Columbus statue was part of the Drake Fountain in South Chicago.
Eliezer Appleton/Flickr
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CHICAGO — A long-awaited report from a city committee that was reviewing Chicago monuments was released Friday — and it recommends the city take down the controversial Balbo monument and not return several statues of Christopher Columbus.

The report is certain to renew debate over the monuments, which have long been controversial. It’s not yet certain if officials will follow the committee’s recommendations to remove the monuments.

The Columbus statues “should not return,” said Les Begay, a member of the Diné Nation, co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples Day Coalition of Illinois and long a volunteer for the American Indian Center. “The committee made the right recommendation, and I hope the mayor takes that recommendation and does not overrule them.”

The city created the Chicago monuments committee in August 2020 as debate raged over what should happen to Chicago’s Christopher Columbus statues. A prominent Columbus statue in Grant Park and two others in the city had been removed in July 2020 amid high-profile debates over monuments that honor problematic figures — and after protesters tried to tear it down, leading to a violent clash with police officers.

The Columbus statues have been in storage, their fates uncertain, while the city-created committee reviewed them.

Some Italian American groups have argued they should be returned, saying Columbus is a hero to many Italians; but others have pointed out how Columbus’ actions led to mass genocide and crimes, including rape and torture, against Indigenous people.

RELATED: Permanent Removal Of Columbus Statues Would Be A Victory For Indigenous Groups, But Italian Americans Vow To Keep Fighting

In March, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she fully expected a Columbus statue to return to Grant Park, generating controversy among people who were waiting to hear from the monuments committee.

Friday’s report from the committee recommends the statues stay gone for good. Columbus has become “a bitter reminder of centuries of exploitation, conquest and genocide” for many, and there has been “significant adverse public reaction to these artworks,” according to the committee.

“There’s a large Native community in the city, and we’re pretty much erased,” Begay said. “The mayor talks about not wanting to provide a sanitized version of history, but I think returning the statues is the epitome of sanitized history and revisionist history.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Crews remove the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal the morning of July 24, 2020.

Grant and Arrigo parks, which held two of the Columbus statues, could instead be redeveloped in ways to “bring communities together,” according to the committee.

The Park District should consider removing temporary barriers in those parks so there can be public engagement events where neighbors can discuss the future of the sites where the Columbus statues once stood, according to the committee.

Redevelopment at those sites should “include an acknowledgement of the contributions of immigrant communities in helping to shape our city, including those of Italian Americans,” according to the committee.

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Changes to the Drake Fountain, which had the third Columbus statue, will need to be approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, according to the committee.

The Italo Balbo Monument should also be taken down because it was a gift from the fascist government of Italy and pays tribute to Italo Balbo, an ally of Italian dictator Mussolini, according to the report.

The city could consider long-term loans of these statues or donating them to private groups, the committee recommended.

Other Monuments Could Be Removed

“The Discoverers” on the DuSable bridge. Credit: Joe Passe/Flickr

Much of the controversy around Chicago’s memorial has focused on the Columbus statues and Balbo monument, but the committee also reviewed dozens of other public statues that had been flagged as problematic.

As a result, Friday’s report also recommends taking down the “Jacques Marquette-Louis Jolliet Memorial” — which depicts an Indigenous person following Marquette — because it “reinforces stereotypes about American Indians and glorifies a complicated and painful history of western expansion.”

The “Fort Dearborn Massacre” sculpture has a false name and uses violent imagery to “reinforce a founding myth of Chicago that characterizes American Indians as deceitful and untrustworthy,” and it should remain in storage, according to the committee.

Plaques for Kinzie Mansion and Jean Baptiste Beaubien should be placed in storage, and the city should commission new plaques or signs that provide a more accurate recounting of the city’s founding, according to the report.

Several reliefs on DuSable Bridge — “The Defense,” “The Pioneers,” “Discoverers” and “Regeneration” — are also problematic and should be taken down, according to the report. But that will be difficult since the reliefs are attached to the bridge house and are part of a landmark; while the issue is studied, the city could host “powerful, non-physical and possibly periodic deactivation or disruption of these works,” according to the report.

Tablets for Cavalier De La Salle and Jolliet and Marquette on DuSable Bridge should be placed in storage because they uphold white supremacy, according to the committee.

“With support and leadership from the American Indian community, a study should be commissioned to address these works with new projects that tell a more accurate and inclusive narrative about Chicago’s founding,” according to the committee.

“Regeneration” on the DuSable Bridge. Credit: Chris Rycroft/Flickr

Other memorials flagged for removal:

  • A statue of General Philip Henry Sheridan, who used scorched-earth tactics against Indigenous people, including allowing troops to poach buffalo to the point the species was nearly exterminated.
  • The Marquette Memorial.
  • A bust of Melville Fuller, a Supreme Court justice who oversaw the court that made a ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. The 1896 case protected segregation.

The committee also recommended three controversial monuments remain, but the city should take steps to acknowledge the pieces do not challenge the legacies of their subjects — such as addressing how George Washington enslaved people — or depict stereotypical portrayals.

Those monuments:

  • A statue of William McKinley.
  • A monument to George Washington.
  • “Indians (The Bowman and the Spearman).”

The city should also revise or add more accompanying text to some controversial monuments, and they should get feedback from residents and other stakeholders when doing so, the committee recommended.

Those monuments:

  • Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln statues.
  • Monuments to several significant but controversial figures, including the “Ulysses S. Grant Monument,” “Benjamin Franklin” statue and “General John Logan Monument.”
  • Artwork depicting Indigenous people, including “The Alarm.”
  • Monuments to historic events or places, including the “Illinois Centennial Monument,” “The Republic” and “Haymarket Riot Monument.”

In the long term, the city should also continue to talk with community members about how those memorials should be treated, according to the committee.

To address the complexities of those monuments, the city should host permanent or ongoing “artistic prioritized interventions that will help viewers reconsider the works and their subjects,” according to the committee.

The committee also recommended the city invest in ongoing programs that can “enhance” how residents experience monuments — including how future monuments are approved.

The committee also recommended the city invest in creating new artwork, particularly memorials that honor events, people and groups that have historically been ignored.

“I think there are Native leaders throughout the history of Chicago that could be put in statues and talked about,” Begay said.

The city could honor Indigenous leaders and trailblazers like Kitihawa, who helped found Chicago; Chief Blackhawk and Simon Pokagon, Begay said.

The committee’s members spent two years looking at every public memorial to determine if they were problematic and, if so, what should be done with them. Its work was mired in secrecy and delays.

In February 2021, the committee listed 41 monuments from around Chicago that were identified as needing “further review,” including famous pieces like the Illinois Centennial Monument at the heart of Logan Square and statues of Columbus and Abraham Lincoln.

Read the committee’s full report:

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