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On Columbus Day in Syracuse, a division over how to honor Italian heritage

A lawn sign in Syracuse.
A lawn sign in Syracuse protesting Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh's decision to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus in downtown Syracuse

Monday is Columbus Day and two events will be held at Columbus Circle in downtown Syracuse: one honoring the Italian explorer and another protesting him. This comes as Mayor Ben Walsh has promised to remove the Columbus statue and a lawsuit is pending to stop him. Opinions on Columbus remain divided, even among Italian Americans.

Former Onondaga County Executive Nick Pirro sits on the board of the Columbus Monument Corporation. That’s the group suing the city to stop the removal of the statue. Pirro said the group feels strongly that no one should take away their Italian heritage. Were there problems created by colonization? Yes, Pirro contended, but Columbus was a courageous explorer.

“You go back to the 1930s when thousands of people in Syracuse of Italian extraction, gave their nickels and dimes and quarters to build that monument,” Pirro said. “It’s a piece of public art. It’s part of the history of Syracuse and it’s also part of our heritage. And that’s what we’re celebrating.”

Pirro said they’re not opposed to a heritage park honoring other groups, next to Columbus Circle. It’s an idea shared by the current county executive, Ryan McMahon. After a wreath-laying ceremony in the morning, the Columbus Monument Corporation is honoring McMahon. McMahon said on Friday, he’s in favor of an idea proposed by Rep. John Katko, to have a statue of Native American leader Hiawatha, next to the Columbus statue.

“I don’t think just removing the statue brings people together,” McMahon said.

Colleen Zawadzki is with Women of Italian and Syracuse Heritage in Central New York, a group that believes the Columbus statue needs to be replaced with something Italian Americans can be more proud of, and honors the local indigenous community. She said Columbus represents genocide and trauma for Native Americans.

“To include Hiawatha standing next to someone that represents all that other pain and trauma to their nation, I don’t think, discounts that,” Zawadzki said. “I would think there are many more Italians that are more honorable that represent our cultural heritage, now that we know the truth of Columbus’ own history.”

Her group and the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation are hosting an event at Columbus Circle Monday evening, followed by a display of Native American short films at the Everson Museum of Art.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.