Amid an ongoing nationwide debate over the commemoration of controversial colonialist and Confederate figures through statues and namesakes, votes from City Hall cleared two of New Haven’s most visible tributes to Christopher Columbus over the past two weeks: a statue at Wooster Square, and the name of a Fair Haven elementary school, Christopher Columbus Family Academy. 

Contention over the legacy of the Genoan-Spanish explorer and colonialist has long existed among segments of the city’s population. Many in the city’s Italian American community have repeatedly defended the explorer’s image as a symbol of Italian American heritage. Other residents, including members of local Latino and Native American communities, have previously led calls to remove Columbus’ name from the Columbus Academy and to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. Until recently, many of these conversations have taken a side seat to other matters in City Hall. Now, their rapid conclusion has revealed the hardened convictions of many on both sides of the debate over the explorer’s legacy, and pressed public officials to take a stance many long avoided. 

“I think that it would have taken longer and much more community conversation, but eventually we would have ended at the same point had this national uprising not occurred,” New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker told the News of the recent changes. The current political climate, he said, “lay the groundwork for a pretty fast change in New Haven.”

Throughout the country, protestors have targeted Columbus statues for removal. Over the past two weeks, local governments have removed Columbus statues in parks in other Connecticut cities like Norwalk, Middletown and Hartford — often as preemptive measures to prevent damage to the statues while their ultimate fate is decided. In cities like Boston and San Francisco, groups have toppled Columbus statues by force.

In New Haven, city officials feared the Wooster Square statue would also be toppled.

Last Wednesday, a city crew removed the Columbus statue at Wooster Square after a vote from the city’s Park Commission on June 17 and orders from Elicker.

Elicker first called for the removal of the Wooster Square statue after speaking with leaders from the city’s Italian American community. Many, including Alder Ellen Cupo and representatives from several of Wooster Square’s Italian American cultural societies joined the call. 

In a press release last Wednesday, Elicker thanked leaders within the Italian American community for their understanding and “courage” in making a difficult decision. Elicker also promised he would work to “highlight other cultural icons for the many Italian Americans that have made New Haven their home.”

“People’s roots are deep and people’s different histories are deep, and that’s going to take a lot of effort and time and listening for us to heal,” Elicker told the News regarding the emotions on both sides of the debate. “You’re talking about hundreds of years of history.”

The removal crew arrived unannounced to the public in the early morning last Wednesday, though demonstrators for and against the statue’s removal filled in as news of the crew’s presence permeated through social media and appeared in early news reports. The number of demonstrators swelled to several dozen, and eventually at least one physical altercation broke out, according to video footage from the New Haven Independent.

“As soon as I saw the news that they were gathering to protect the statue, I jumped out of bed and came,” pro-removal demonstrator Los Fidel — a New Haven resident who was struck on the back of the head during a confrontation at the protest — told the News.

After Fidel was struck, a fight ensued, followed by heated exchanges between demonstrators from both sides. Fidel struck back. Racial slurs and an array of insults rung out throughout the video.

Despite the altercations at last Wednesday’s removal of the Columbus statue, New Haven police confirmed that they made no arrests.

On Friday evening, Fidel and a group of protesters confronted Elicker over the lack of arrests during a conversation with him at Wooster Square.

“What if I did it?” Fidel asked Elicker at the park, suggesting that police would have arrested him had he punched someone on the street on a normal day, according to a video first released by the New Haven Independent. The other protesters nodded in agreement. 

On Monday, Elicker announced the creation of a Wooster Square Monument Committee to decide plans for a new monument commemorating Italian American heritage to replace the Columbus statue.

Until its removal, the Columbus statue had remained on the eastern edge of Wooster Square since 1892, when the city’s Italian American community raised funds to raise the statue for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. 

School Board votes to change Columbus Academy’s name

On Monday night, the New Haven’s Board of Education voted to remove Columbus’ name from the Christopher Columbus Family Academy in the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood, commencing a renaming process for the school. In the same motion, the Board also voted, on a 6-1 line, to permanently change its recognition of Oct. 12 from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. 

“We want to make sure our kids can go to a school they can identify with, that they’re not attending a school feeling diminished or demoralized by going to a school named after Columbus,” said Yesenia Rivera, president of the New Haven Board of Education on her decision to vote for the name change.

“There are kids that are predominantly Indigenous,” she said of the school’s student body. 

 The National Center for Education Studies reported that for the 2017–18 school year, more than nine in ten of the Columbus Academy’s 498 students are Hispanic, a government term used to describe students of Latino or Iberian ancestry. Many within New Haven’s Ecuadorian, Mexican and Guatemalan immigrant populations identify as Indigenous.

Board member Darnell Goldson, the lone dissenter in both votes, said he voted against the decision despite his reservations on the legacy of Columbus because he believed the rush to vote violated the Board’s commitment to an open decision-making process.

“It was a political decision to use the pandemic to make a decision without community input,” Goldson said of the Board’s decision to vote on a proposal he said he did not receive until 15 minutes before the start of the meeting.

Goldson told the News that his past opportunities to weigh in on controversial decisions as a board member — like in the 2018 Board decision to consolidate the city’s three alternative schools into one — taught him that drawing out decisions is difficult but necessary. The decisions on Columbus came too fast, he said.

“We had to make that vote in front of 200 screaming people,” Goldson said of the 2018 vote, adding that in the end, some Board members who initially supported the consolidation abstained during the final vote. 

Goldson said he would still like to see a broader discussion surrounding the change and will propose to the Board the creation of two separate committees to consider each of the Board’s votes and to make their own decisions. Goldson said he believes these committees — which would include a broader group of community members such as students, parents and teachers — would offer the best representation of public opinion. It is these groups, he said, who should make the final decision.  

Elicker, whose daughter attends Columbus Academy, has previously said that he agreed with the name change, but wanted an open community discussion beforehand.

New Haven renamed Greene Street School — then on the corner of Greene Street and Wooster Place — after Columbus sometime around the 1920s, when the first, mass generation of American-born Italians began to attend the area’s schools, according to local Italian American historian Francis Calzetta. At the time of the namings, Wooster Square was predominantly Italian American; Fair Haven, too, had a sizable Italian American population. 

In the 1960s, part of former Mayor Richard Lee’s redevelopment efforts cleared thousands of houses from Wooster Square and Fair Haven, both redlined neighborhoods deemed “blighted” by the city. Redevelopment, economic advancement and white flight led to the gradual exodus of Italian Americans from the Wooster Square and Fair Haven neighborhoods out to suburbs or newer New Haven neighborhoods like Annex. 

The change also moved the Columbus School to Fair Haven, a neighborhood that has long served as a place of first arrival for immigrant communities, according to historian Jason Bischoffe-Wurstle of the New Haven Museum.

Waves of immigrants from Puerto Rico beginning in the post-war era, and decades later Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala, slowly transformed the Fair Haven neighborhood into New Haven’s most Latino neighborhood, Bischoffe-Wurstle explained. Today Latinos compose 64 percent of the Fair Haven population, according to statistics from Data Haven’s 2020 Neighborhood Profile series

At the same time, the neighborhood’s non-Hispanic white population has shrunk to 12 percent

 A Split Legacy

The ideological divide over Columbus’ legacy has intensified over recent years. 

Italian Americans have remained a large and politically entrenched community in the Greater New Haven area since the first mass wave of migration to New Haven beginning in the 1880s, said Francis Calzetta, a local historian and member of the American-Italian Women of Greater New Haven. According to one interpretation, many in the Italian community adopted Columbus as a “sanitized” cultural figurehead in an effort to justify their place within their newfound home and combat otherness — proof of Italian American belonging through an attachment to the earliest days of the American nation.

Others, like Calzetta, have attributed the attention of Italian communities in New Haven due to their understanding of his importance “of opening the new world to the old world,” a change that allowed European immigrant communities access to new opportunities.

Commemorations of Columbus throughout New Haven stem from the direct efforts of New Haven’s Italian American community over the past century and a half.

Yet support for a change has grown among residents of Fair Haven, many of whom are immigrants from Latin American countries and identify as Indigenous. For the past two years, members of the city’s Latino population have marched on Columbus Academy as a part of a broader celebration of Indigenous People’s Day.

Last year, demonstrators covered the school’s sign with the name “Academia Tlahuicole,” in reference to a Tlaxcalan Indigenous warrior. Much of New Haven’s Mexican immigrant population comes from the small state of Talxcala.

John Lugo, an activist for Unidad Latina en Acción, the New Haven-based immigrant activist group that organized the past marches on Columbus Academy, told the News he hopes to see the school renamed after an Indigenous figure. 

“There’s a historic debt towards those who were here before (Columbus),” Lugo said in Spanish of the responsibility New Haveners have to remember the Quinnipiac and other Indigenous peoples who inhabited the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. 

For Lugo, the renaming is part of a broader effort to fight what he believes is a historical discussion that only begins with the arrival of the Europeans.

In recent years, the discussion has also become more prevalent inside the doors of City Hall. 

Last summer, proponents and opponents of Columbus’ legacy showed up in force when the City Services Environmental Policy committee held a public hearing over the possibility of changing Oct. 12 from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. 

Indigenous leaders spoke in support of the change; leadership from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Fraternal society centered in New Haven’s with strong ties to the city’s Italian American history, asked for an Indigenous People’s Day to be made on a day other than Oct. 12. No policy change advanced from the discussion, as reported by the New Haven Independent.

In October of last year, Wooster Square’s annual Columbus Day commemoration attracted a line of public dignitaries including then-Mayor Toni Harp and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro D-New Haven. DeLauro, who grew up in the Wooster Square neighborhood to Italian immigrant parents, told the News at that event that she opposed a name change for the Columbus Family Academy and the doing away of Columbus Day.

“Today we have a serious immigration issue,” DeLauro told the News last October. “We ought to be more focused on the repression of immigrants [today] than concerning ourselves with trying to denigrate someone else who created an immigrant experience.”

In an op-ed published last Thursday in the New Haven Register, DeLauro expressed her support for both the removal of the Columbus statue from Wooster Square and the renaming of Columbus Academy. The Elm City congresswoman said she will continue to oppose the substitution of Indigenous People’s Day for Columbus Day.

“That makes Italian Americans invisible again and disrespects my history,” she wrote.

DeLauro also defended her previous support for Columbus Day events, where she regularly spoke on issues of immigration and identity alongside Columbus. Her intention of mentioning Columbus, she wrote, was to represent the Italian American immigrant experience.

Even with the most recent changes, Columbus’ name will remain a fixture in New Haven, adorning Columbus Avenue — a prominent thoroughfare in the The Hill neighborhood — and the name of the city’s second tallest building, the fortress-like Knights of Columbus Tower.

Emiliano Tahui Gómez | emiliano.gomez@yale.edu