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Anger, confusion and some ‘cheering’ among local Italian Americans after removal of Columbus statues

Mayor Lori lightfoot had Columbus statues in Grant Park and Arrigo Park removed early Friday.

A group of people in support of the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue cheer as the statue is driven away from Grant Park, Friday, July 24, 2020. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
A group of people cheers as the Christopher Columbus statue is driven away from Grant Park, Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A sense of deep “hurt” and confusion swept through the city’s Italian American community Friday, hours after the removal of two Christopher Columbus statues in the dark of night.

“Are we happy about it? Absolutely not. As a community, we are extremely hurt,” said Sergio Giangrande, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, which is headquartered in Stone Park.

Giangrande said he’d been reassured by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recent comments that she had no plans to tear down statues of historical figures.

“I don’t understand what changed,” Giangrande said. “Are we giving in to the violence of the left at this point? ... This was a decision made without us. We were not at the table to discuss what other options there were.”

Just last week, Giangrande sent letters to the mayor and to the head of the city’s American Indian Center proposing a plaque be installed opposite the Arrigo Park statute that would detail the “many versions of the history of Columbus.”

Giangrande said Friday he understands Lightfoot’s concerns about safety and the violence that has erupted in recent weeks around the Grant Park statue, but said there should have been an open “dialogue.”

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization, feels the same way.

“Our society must have a civil debate on these issues and not settle differences with mob violence and destruction, which we are seeing not only against Columbus but other historical figures and even American patriots like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant,” Joseph Cullen, a spokesman for the group, told the Sun-Times.

Robert Allegrini, who is prominent in the local Italian American community, said he supports the national discussion about promoting greater diversity in “all aspects of American society.”

“The removal of important Italian-American community symbols in the dead of night — with no previous democratic discussion on the matter — certainly does not promote that diversity,” said Allegrini, the executive vice president of the National Italian American Foundation. He said he was speaking on his own behalf and not the foundation’s.

Allegrini said the mayor’s order to remove the statutes took him by surprise.

“Clearly, she had a change of heart,” he said.

Allegrini said he worries about what might be the next target of the anti-Columbus movement, including the city’s annual parade.

“There are certainly those out there who would like to see that happen,” he said. “That is quite possibly next on the agenda of those who are anti-Columbus.”

But Gabriel Piemonte, founder and president of the Italian American Heritage Society of Chicago, said he was among the city’s Italian Americans “cheering” the removal of statues dedicated to the Italian explorer. He said it’s now time to move on.

“We want to turn a page,” Piemonte said. “We want to talk about the actual history and culture in our communities, ... and not someone who lived 500 years ago and in a way that none of us consider admirable.”

Contributing: Evan F. Moore