by Pete Mazzaccaro
As statues of Christopher Columbus have been toppled around the country, an angry and violent crowd assembled in Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza to defend the statue of the 15th century explorer. Hundreds of South Philadelphia residents, most Italian Americans, said they were protecting history – an icon of Italian American Heritage.
They can and should do a lot better.
The record of Cristopher Columbus and the history of the adaptation of Columbus Day as a national holiday have been well examined in recent years. His record of plunder, enslavement, rape and other acts of violence has been exhaustively documented. While his 1492 voyage is important, he’s not a man whose actions have even earned a monument let alone status as a symbol of Italian American pride.
Columbus was never a central figure of American myth until 11 Italian Americans accused of killing a New Orleans police chief were killed by an angry mob in 1891. After the Italian consulate expressed its outrage at the killings, then President Benjamin Harrison declared the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the new world a general holiday in 1892. It was an act to appease the nation’s angry Italian population. The Knights of Columbus finally got the holiday permanent national recognition in 1937.
It’s understandable that Italian Americans want a figure to help them connect to the national narrative of America. For most of this country’s history, Italians were treated were met with suspicion and outright racism. But embracing Columbus as a patron saint of Italian heritage is a mistake. It’s time to let the violent conquistador go. The historical figure Italian Americans should adopt is Filippo “Philip” Mazzei, an almost too-good-to-to-be-true figure who helped found the United States.
Mazzei, an Italian physician and wine maker, was born in Tuscany in 1730. He met Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in London and quickly bonded with the American forefathers over shared progressive views on liberty. (Those views found plenty of space for the contradictory practice of human chattel slavery. Mazzei, however, is not known to have owned slaves or used slave labor). He moved to Virginia in 1773 and become a lifelong friend of Thomas Jefferson. While in Virginia, Mazzei and Jefferson created what would become the first commercial vineyard in Virginia. He would return to Europe and act as an agent for Jefferson and the state of Virginia as an unofficial ambassador and even an arms dealer, buying munitions and shipping them to the state.
To further cement his status in the American story, many scholars credit Mazzei with the phrase “all men are created equal,” which Jefferson incorporated in the Declaration of Independence. The phrase appears in Mazzei’s writings several years before Jefferson, with whom Mazzei shared a lifetime of correspondence, wrote the nation’s founding document.
Mazzei has received little attention for his contributions to the nation’s founding. His face was placed on a 40-cent U.S. airmail stamp in 1980. His name was also given to a World War II-era Navy cargo ship.
Mayor Jim Kenney has called the removal of Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza and said he will ask the city’s Art Commission to approve the move on July 22. He’s also promised public input. This is preferable to letting the statue be destroyed by an angry mob. Columbus may deserve that, but the people protecting the statue who feel they are losing a symbol of their own heritage certainly deserve better.
There’s an argument to be made that this country should reconsider all of its monuments, particularly given the role many founding fathers played in the practice and perpetuation of slavery. In a city that can claim some of the most remarkable African American figures in this nation’s history, the fact that it has only one statue of an African American figure, the 19th century civil rights icon Octavius Catto, and that his statue wasn’t placed until 2017, is, frankly, mind boggling. If it is worth building monuments to historical figures at all, there’s a lot of work to be done in recognizing the significant and historical contributions made by this city’s long and notable list of great African American citizens
If the city does want to replace Columbus with a figure with genuine significance to Italian Americans — after it considers how to redress the notable absence of African Americans in its public memorials – it should consider a Marconi Plaza statue of Filippo Mazzei, repudiate the terrible legacy of Columbus and put the city on the map for recognizing the legacy of a genuine Italian figure whose contributions were material to the founding of the nation.
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