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Park District Asks Peoria: What To Do With Columbus Statue in Bradley Park?

The Christopher Columbus statue at Bradley Park in the Uplands neighborhood.
Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio
The Christopher Columbus statue at Bradley Park in the Uplands neighborhood.

It's clear Peorians have strong opinions on the Columbus statue in upper Laura Bradley Park after the park district listened to more than 90 minutes of public comments at a forum on the monument's future on Wednesday.

The board is considering several options, including removing the statue; adding a new sign to provide addtional historical context about the Italian explorer's controversial legacy; modifying it to resemble another historical figure; or leaving it alone.

The statue has stood in the West Bluff's Uplands neighborhood near Bradley University since 1902. It was relocated from the intersection of Columbia Terrace and Institute to the park in 1947 after it was deemed a traffic hazard. An identical Columbus statue was displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Tommy Rosecrans of Peoria said he's for "destroying this statue completely" because of Columbus' poor treatment of women and Natives. He also said it's a good opportunity for the area to repair its reputation after the "White Trash Bash" garnered negative international media attention for eschewing social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The whole world is watching us right now, and we have the opportunity to kind of turn it around and say, 'Hey, not all of us are terrible people,'" he said. "Some of us are conscious-thinking, forward citizens who just want to see their community thrive and all of us unite."

But others argued it is important to keep the statue for its historic or educational value.

Bernard Goitein, a Bradley University professor and Uplands resident for 40 years, said more education about Columbus' controversial legacy is needed--but he supports keeping the statue.

"Simply removing the statue would not provide the education," he said. "What would provide the education, so clearly needed, would be appropriate historical signage."

He said the Peoria Park District should ask Bradley University's history department to help craft that signage.

Mary Howard, a former history teacher from Edelstein, said she believes something needs to be done with the Columbus statue.

"The statue did come from the Chicago World's Fair. It's a piece of art, and I would hate to see it totally destroyed," she said. "It either needs signage, or it needs to be moved. And even if it is moved, it needs some signage."

But other speakers said signage isn't enough to make clear the extent of Columbus' abuses.

"I don't see how we can have a statue out for our children to see, and honor this man, because there is no way that you can put up signage explaining what he did. You can't do that for children or adults. It's too horrific," said Debra Pendleton of Peoria.

Doug Johnson, co-chair of the Peoria Democratic Socialists of America, also represented the desires of the NAACP Peoria Branch, Queer Activist Collective, Change Peoria, and the Black Justice Project to remove the statue, which he said honors a man guilty of "genocide, slavery, and child sex trafficking."

"It takes maybe five minutes to find out the truth about Christopher Columbus," Johnson said. "It is 2020, and we have the entire collection of almost everything written by humankind at our fingertips, and we should use that."

He said those who want the statue removed don't care what happens to it afterwards, as long as it's not maintained using public dollars.

Timothy Anders of Peoria said Columbus has been "unfairly maligned" through "misquotes and misunderstandings." He said society honors others, like Martin Luther King, Jr., despite their flaws.

"We don't memorialize people like that because of the things they did wrong. We memorialize people for the things that they did right. If we were looking for someone to memorialize who was perfect, we're never going to have anybody to ever look up to, nor to ever inspire us to be better," Anders said.

The planning committee meeting will compile the public feedback on Sept. 1, and the park board will make its final determination next month.

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Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.