Growing up in Westerly, Wilcox Park served as the setting for some of my most formative childhood experiences. I hunted candy-filled eggs at Easter, watched fireworks at the Summer Pops, took photos for senior prom, and spent hours reading beneath the willow tree. The park is a place where I laughed, cried, reflected, and celebrated. Like many Westerly residents, Wilcox Park represents key moments of my childhood and young adult years.
In the background of these memories is the Christopher Columbus statue. As an Italian-American, I used to be proud that the man who “discovered” America shared my culture and heritage. Looking upon the statue, I saw a brave explorer who represented the hardworking Italian immigrants of our town. However, as I grew older, I learned this portrayal of Columbus’s journey ignores a bloody history. This realization led me to wonder:
Why do so many people credit a man who explored the Caribbean, Central America, and South America with discovering our country?
Why do we ignore Columbus’s participation in the enslavement, rape, and murder of thousands of Indigenous people?
Why do we glorify Columbus instead of those who made meaningful contributions to Westerly? Are there no other Italians worth celebrating? What about the Native people who settled here centuries ago or the granite workers who buoyed our economy?
I have yet to come up with satisfying answers to these questions. Outside of sharing an ethnicity with residents like myself, Columbus has no connection to this town. The myriad of ways we honor Columbus — the statue, the holiday weekend, the annual parade — make it easy to forget that he never even set foot in this country. The plaque below the statue describes Columbus as an “intrepid Italian explorer who linked the Old World of our fathers to the New World of our sons.” As this inscription demonstrates, we rationalize our reverence for Columbus by imagining that his landing in Haiti somehow affected the arrival of English settlers on Westerly’s shores.
In addition to reinforcing false history, celebrating Columbus also ignores the pain and suffering of Indigenous people massacred by European colonization. The statue stands in mockery of Westerly’s Native residents, whose ancestors were violently forced from their home. Today, our town barely remembers their contributions, despite Indigenous history in Westerly spanning thousands of years. The only references to their existence are the names we claim for our local beaches, often without knowing their true meaning. For this reason, I disagree with those who say that removing the statue erases history. On the contrary, this would be a step toward acknowledging how much history the statue has erased.
Rather than willfully ignoring our town’s history, we have the opportunity to embrace it. Removing the Christopher Columbus statue is a chance to hold ourselves to a higher standard, one that prioritizes historical accuracy and our collective humanity. In doing so, we can ensure that the grounds of Wilcox Park are as emblematic of our community as the memories that are made there.