The celebration of Columbus Day next month could be Hartford’s last, as a community task force is taking shape to address growing concerns about memorializing the Italian explorer.
Two city councilors had sought to rename Oct. 12 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as Bridgeport, West Hartford and other U.S. cities have done in recent years in recognition of Christopher Columbus’ brutality in colonizing the Americas and the Caribbean.
Instead, the Court of Common Council unanimously voted to send that suggestion to the new task force, which will meet over the next six-plus months to look holistically at all city memorials to Columbus — now deemed “unfit,” according to the resolution — and discuss how they should be changed.
“It may very well land that way,” Councilman Nick Lebron said Tuesday, of the city recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day. “However, we just want to make sure, with this Columbus thing such a passionate topic…”
Along with the name of the holiday, the group will consider any next steps around the bronze statue the city removed in June, the name of the park where the monument stood for nearly 100 years, and Columbus Boulevard in downtown Hartford. They will inventory “all things Columbus,” as council members say, and as early as the spring, recommend a process for recognizing local heroes.
The task force will include a faculty member at Trinity College, which is undertaking a similar effort.
While the private school doesn’t have any monuments to the 15th century navigator, it is part of a national movement in higher education to explore connections to slavery, says Jason Rojas, chief of staff to Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney.
City council has also invited to the Columbus task force members of the Italian American and Indigenous communities and representatives of UConn and Capital Community College, among other stakeholders.
“We have an opportunity now to come together and coalesce as a team regardless of party, regardless of where we live, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity,” Lebron, the leader of the effort, said during Monday’s council meeting.
Lebron acknowledged that there’s been some “consternation” around whether and how to strip the Columbus name from the city.
Some people, like Working Families Party council members Wildaliz Bermudez and Joshua Michtom, wanted to move quickly to rename the holiday separate from the work of the task force. They made their proposal around Indigenous Peoples’ Day two months out, on Aug. 10.
“I think the status of Columbus, good and bad, in history is pretty well established, so I think at this point we can still let the ad hoc committee do the good work it has to do but we can get right to this on. We don’t need to discuss it anymore, we can just do the thing and have it ready for the holiday in question,” Michtom said Monday night, before he and Bermudez agreed to vote with the rest of the council.
Meanwhile, the body’s two Black members, Majority Leader Thomas “TJ” Clarke II and Shirley Surgeon, wanted to see Columbus Boulevard renamed for Frank T. Simpson, a Black social worker and civil rights leader who spent most of his life in the North End, a predominately Black section of Hartford. They wanted to vote on that proposal Monday night, but were also outnumbered — without their approval, the council sent it to the tax force.
And among Hartford residents, some Italian Americans still stand by memorials to Columbus, while others want to see his name eclipsed by other prominent figures in their community, like Gov. Ella Grasso, the first female governor of the state, or Dominick DeLucco, the first Italian American mayor of Hartford.
Marc DiBella, chairman of Hartford’s Democratic Town Committee, said he’s heard different perspectives on the issue.
“I think the reason this stuff is complicated is it transcends a name or a person, Columbus, who lived 500 years ago,” said Marc DiBella, chairman of Hartford’s Democratic Town Committee. “This gets into, I don’t want to say turf wars, but … people in the South End don’t want people in another part of the city telling them what to do with a name.”
DiBella on Tuesday added that businesses and organizations on Columbus Boulevard will have to bear some costs if the city changes their address.
“There’s just a lot of layers to it,” he said. “These are the things everybody expects the committee to look at.”
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at [email protected].
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