The statue was donated to the city by Italian-American attorney Nunziato Fursaro in memory of his wife and erected in 1978.
Columbus has long been an American Catholic and Italian-American folk hero. They have seen his pioneering voyage from Europe as a way of validating their presence in a sometimes hostile majority-Protestant country and as the means by which Christianity reached the New World.
Columbus was long depicted as a symbol of exploration and discovery, critical for launching the encounter between Europe and the Americas. He was also a symbol of immigrants, and honors for Columbus drew opposition from nativist and anti-Catholic groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
While Columbus never set foot in North America, the District of Columbia bears his name and he is the namesake of the Knights of Columbus, now the largest Catholic men's fraternal organization in the world.
In recent decades, Columbus has drawn critical coverage. Some blame him for the launch of the transatlantic slave trade, and fault him for the enslavement and other mistreatment of some Native Americans under his command. Some critics blame him for the subsequent sufferings of Native Americans under Spanish rule, or under the rule of European colonists generally.
Councilor Sarai Rivera had introduced the failed proposal. She said the statue should be removed because of atrocities and devastation caused for indigenous people in the Caribbean, Central America, and North America.
Rivera identifies as Afro Taina and claims descent from the Taino indigenous people of Puerto Rico. She said she never participated in Worcester's annual Columbus Day Parade.
“I could never go to celebrate someone who committed genocide on my ancestors,” she said, according to the Worcester Gazette & Telegram.
“Columbus is not about heritage. Columbus is about hate,” Rivera said to the council meeting, according to the Boston Globe. “And when you think about the amazing contributions the Italian community has done, even within our own community ... that’s who we should be honoring. That’s who we should be talking about.”
The explorer had good relations with a Native American leader on Hispaniola. There, a Taino chief named Guacanagari aided Columbus after the wreck of his main ship the Santa Maria. Columbus adopted one of his sons. That son took the name of Columbus’ natural son, Diego, and accompanied Columbus on his final three voyages
In June the Worcester Columbus statue was vandalized with red paint, with the word “genocide” written on it. A Columbus statue in Boston's historically Italian North End was beheaded.
This followed protests originally launched in response to the death of Minnesotan George Floyd, a black man, while he was being detained by Minneapolis police. Violence and vandalism, rejected by protest organizers, have caused massive damage to American cities.
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Vandals particularly targeted statues of Confederate leaders, but also moved against statues of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, and Spanish missionary St. Junipero Serra, a major figure of early Californian history. Catholic churches and statues have also come under attack.
In Worcester the Columbus statue's location at Union Station is owned and operated by the Worcester Redevelopment Authority, but the statue itself belongs to the city.
Councilor Kathleen M. Toomey also spoke against removing the statue.
“I feel very strongly that we need to respect each other and not tear each other down,” she said. “And when you start taking away other peoples’ symbols without having conversation, without trying to understand what things mean, I think that’s a problem.”
The proposal cannot be brought again for 90 days unless the city council agrees to to reconsider it.
The Italian American Alliance welcomed the shelving of the proposal, and voiced hope the city would “take special care to protect the statue against vandals.”