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Christopher Columbus Memorial, St. Paul

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Columbus Memorial

The Christopher Columbus Memorial in St. Paul, on the grounds of the State Capitol. Photograph by Peter DeCarlo, 2019. On June 10, 2020, a group of protesters tore down the statue; its plinth remained intact.

Italian Americans erected a Christopher Columbus memorial on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol in 1931 to mark Columbus as the first white man to set foot in the Americas. Though they intended to celebrate the achievement of a fellow Italian during a time of anti-Italian bigotry, the memorial they installed promoted white supremacist myths of discovery and erased Native Americans from history. It made no comment on the atrocities committed by Columbus against Native people. Native Americans and their allies protested the memorial’s existence for decades, and in 2020, a group that included self-identified members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) tore it down.

Between 1880 and 1920, over 4 million Italian immigrants entered the United States. Few came to Minnesota, and the state’s Italian-born population peaked in 1910 at 9,688. When they arrived, they faced a racial ideology of Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Nordic superiority. Italian Americans were seen as “in between” white and non-white, enduring what some historians have called “soft racism.” In a nativist response, the US government passed the Johnson Reed Act in 1924. The act severely limited immigration, particularly from Italy.

In the next few years, Italian Americans throughout the US erected Columbus memorials, and the Minnesota effort followed in that tradition. After members of the Italian Progressive Club of Duluth proposed the idea at a 1927 meeting, it was endorsed by the Minnesota Federation of Italian-American Clubs, and a resolution to create a monument was drafted at the Columbus Day Banquet held in Hibbing that year. The unanimously adopted resolution made it clear that the monument was about Italian pride and unity. But it also tried to establish Italians as white American citizens.

The effort to erect a monument to Columbus spread to cities across the Iron Range, to St. Paul and Minneapolis, and to communities with small Italian American populations across Minnesota. Italian Americans formed a Columbus Memorial Association and raised $50,000 by public subscription from the Italians of Minnesota. The association wanted the state government to accept the monument as a gift and legitimize the effort. At the same time, leaders of the Italian American community petitioned their legislators to establish Columbus Day as a state holiday. Ultimately, the state legislature approved the Columbus Day bill on April 14, 1931, and accepted the Columbus Memorial as a gift to the state. The statue was designed by Carlo (Charles) Brioschi and the plinth by State Architect Clarence H. Johnston.

The unveiling of the Columbus Memorial was a grand affair, with over 24,000 people in attendance. Italian Americans from the Midwest, local Minnesotans, and political officials from across the nation came to St. Paul. The main messages of the program were that Columbus had discovered America and Italians would be accepted as white. The existence of Native Americans went virtually unmentioned. Afterward, the memorial became a symbol of genocide and erasure for many Native people.

Some people of Scandinavian heritage opposed the memorial, citing Leif Erickson as the first white discoverer of America. In 1949 they erected a monument to the Norseman on the opposite side of the capitol grounds. The Columbus Memorial sat quietly for decades, and the association that created it continued to meet. The 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall brought new attention to the memorial in 1992, and the association added a plaque to the plinth. Native Americans in St. Paul and across the country denounced celebrations of Columbus; in June the memorial was splashed with red paint.

In 2015, the debate over Columbus reignited as monuments to white supremacy, mainly Confederate ones, were vandalized, torn down, and removed. Protests were held at the St. Paul memorial and thousands of people signed online petitions aimed at removing it or replacing it. St. Paul, Minneapolis, and the State of Minnesota proclaimed Indigenous Peoples Day in ensuing years, but the memorial survived.

On June 10, 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in South Minneapolis, a group including people who identified as part of AIM tore down the Columbus statue. Though they did not condone the destruction of public property, Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan acknowledged that the memorial’s presence pained many citizens. Flanagan said she was not sad to see the statue go. Other elected officials and members of the public, meanwhile, pushed for the statue to be restored and reinterpreted. As of July 2, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB) were discussing next steps.

Editor's note: This article describes a developing situation and will be updated as circumstances change.

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138.68 Supervision of Preservation. 2019 Minnesota State Statutes. Office of the Revisor of Statutes.
https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/cite/138.68

Allen, Clark, Omar, Olson, Slocum and others. HF 1676, “A bill for an act relating to state government; establishing the American Indian and Indigenous Peoples Day…,” February 16, 2017.
http://wdoc.house.leg.state.mn.us/leg/LS90/HF1676.0.pdf

Associated Press and MPR News Staff. “Minnesota Protesters Pull Down Columbus Statue at Capitol.” MPR News, June 10, 2020.
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Bakst, Brian. “Political Tension Rises After Columbus Statue Falls.” MPR News, June 11, 2020.
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Bodnar, John. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

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Boller, Jay. “Wanna Swap St. Paul’s Columbus Statue for a Prince One? Sign This Petition.” City Pages, August 25, 2017.
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+138
Charles Brioschi papers, [ca. 1926]–1941
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Architectural drawings of Christopher Columbus monuments in St. Paul (1930–1931) and in Chicago (1932–1933), done in collaboration with St. Paul architect Clarence H. Johnston and the Cold Spring Granite Company of Cold Spring, Minnesota; and other materials related to St. Paul sculptor Brioschi, including biographical items, a speech supporting the establishment of Columbus Day (1926), specifications for a Floyd B. Olson memorial monument in St. Paul (ca. 1936?), and drawings for a Brioschi mausoleum (1930).

Collins, Bob. “Lawmakers Seek History Update On Capitol’s Columbus Statue.” MPR News, March 11, 2015.
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Columbus Memorial Association of Minnesota. Columbus: Dedication of the Columbus Memorial; St. Paul, Minn., October 12, 1931. [St. Paul, MN: N.p.], 1931.

Columbus Memorial Association of Saint Paul, Inc. [flyer], ca. 2005. Columbus Memorial files, Columbus donation. Minnesota State Capitol Historic Site Archives, St. Paul.

Daniels, Roger. Coming To America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. 2nd edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.

Ford, Guy Stanton. “Notes and Documents: The Columbus Celebration.” Minnesota History 13, no. 1 (March 1932): 83–85.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/13/v13i01p083-085.pdf

Grow, Doug. “One Way to Mark Holiday: Columbus Protestors Hit the Avenues.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 12, 1992.

Holmquist, June Drenning, ed. They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

“Italian Envoys To Statue Fete Hailed In City.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 12, 1931.

“Italians Conclude Celebration Held at Capitol City.” Hibbing Daily Tribune, October 13, 1931.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Johnson, Ben. “Christopher Columbus Statue at State Capitol Due for Historic Correction?” City Pages, March 12, 2015.
http://www.citypages.com/news/christopher-columbus-statue-at-state-capitol-due-for-historic-correction-6564940

Kessler, Pat. “Thousands Sign Petition To Replace Columbus Statue with Prince.” WCCO CBS Minnesota, September 6, 2017.

Mearhoff, Sarah. “‘We Are Still Here’: Minnesota Celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day in St. Paul.” Duluth News Tribune, October 14, 2019.

Melekin, Wintana. “To Governor Dayton and the State Legislature: Replace Columbus Statue w/ One Chosen by Native Community on Capitol Lawn & Prince Somewhere Else.” Organize For, undated petition.

Melo, Frederick. “Columbus’ ‘Legacy’ Takes Hits During St. Paul’s First-ever Indigenous Peoples Day.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 11, 2015.
https://www.twincities.com/2015/10/11/columbus-legacy-takes-hits-during-st-pauls-first-ever-indigenous-peoples-day

Moore, Martha T. “In Wake of Charlottesville, New Scrutiny for Native American Statues.” Stateline (PEW Charitable Trusts), July 27, 2018.
http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2018/07/27/in-wake-of-charlottesville-new-scrutiny-for-native-american-statues

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Murphy, Esme. “‘We Are Not Invisible: Minnesota Among Handful of States Honoring Indigenous’ Peoples Day, Not Columbus Day.” WCCO CBS Minnesota, October 14, 2019.

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Records of Governor Floyd B. Olson, 1931–1936
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Related Images

Columbus Memorial
Columbus Memorial
Columbus Memorial under construction at Brioschi Studio
Columbus Memorial under construction at Brioschi Studio
Groundbreaking ceremony for the Columbus Memorial
Groundbreaking ceremony for the Columbus Memorial
Christopher Columbus Memorial dedication ceremony
Christopher Columbus Memorial dedication ceremony
Speakers’ podium at Columbus Memorial dedication ceremony
Speakers’ podium at Columbus Memorial dedication ceremony
Governor Floyd B. Olson speaking at Columbus Memorial dedication ceremony
Governor Floyd B. Olson speaking at Columbus Memorial dedication ceremony
Christopher Columbus Memorial
Christopher Columbus Memorial
Christopher Columbus Memorial
Christopher Columbus Memorial
Christopher Columbus Memorial
Christopher Columbus Memorial
 Christopher Columbus Memorial plaque
 Christopher Columbus Memorial plaque
“Discoverer” detail on the Columbus Memorial
“Discoverer” detail on the Columbus Memorial
Christopher Columbus statue torn down
Christopher Columbus statue torn down
Toppled Christopher Columbus statue on a truck
Toppled Christopher Columbus statue on a truck

Turning Point

In a ceremony attended by an estimated 24,000 people, the Christopher Columbus Memorial is unveiled in St. Paul on October 12, 1931.

Chronology

1492

Christopher Columbus makes landfall in the homeland of the Taíno. He enslaves the Taíno and commits acts of genocide against them and other Indigenous peoples.

late 1600s

The first European colonizers enter the Indigenous homelands that are now called Minnesota.

1837

The Treaty of St. Peters is signed between Dakota and US leaders. The land on which the Columbus Memorial will later be erected becomes United States territory.

1880

Over the course of the next forty years, more than 4.1 million Italians and Sicilians enter the United States. The Italian-born population of Minnesota peaks in 1910 at 9,688.

1924

The Johnson Reed Act severely limits emigration from Italy to the US. A quota system, implemented in 1929, effectively ends the era of immigration.

1927

The Italian Progressive Club of Duluth conceives the idea for a Columbus Memorial. A resolution is drafted at the Columbus Day Banquet in Hibbing the following year. The Christopher Columbus Memorial Association is founded soon after.

1931

Columbus Day is established as a state holiday on April 14. The Christopher Columbus Memorial is unveiled on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds on October 12.

1949

In response to the Columbus Memorial, Scandinavian Minnesotans erect a monument to Leif Erikson on the State Capitol grounds.

1967

The Capitol Architectural Area Planning board is established. The capitol becomes a historic site managed by the Minnesota Historical Society two years later.

1992

As Native Americans continue to protest the myth of discovery, the Columbus Memorial is restored and a new plaque is added to the plinth to celebrate the quincentennial of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.

1992

In June, the memorial is splashed with red paint. Authorities suspect Native American activists who had been protesting police brutality the night before.

2015

Memorials to Columbus across the United States are protested. In ensuing years Native Americans lead calls to remove the Columbus Memorial, while others call to replace it. St. Paul declares Indigenous Peoples Day.

ca. 2018

The Columbus Memorial Association dissolves.

2019

The Minnesota Governor’s Office declares its first Indigenous Peoples Day.

2020

On June 10, three weeks after the murder of George Floyd, a group including self-identified members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) tears down the Columbus statue.