Opinion: A Brief History of Columbus in Chicago
10 min read

Opinion: A Brief History of Columbus in Chicago

It occurred to Craig the other day that it might be confusing for new tourists or visiting vigilantes in our city as to why a Christopher Columbus statue would be here at all. The least he could do is provide context.
Opinion: A Brief History of Columbus in Chicago

It occurred to me the other day that it might be confusing for new tourists or visiting vigilantes in our city as to why a Christopher Columbus statue would be here at all. Lost in the cacophony of insults, social media hashtags, thrown rocks, police batons, sharpened PVC piping, frozen water bottles, tear gas, and fireworks, it appears the reasons and the motivations and the general history behind why a statue of Christopher Columbus stands in Chicago in the first place has either been mistakenly missed or intentionally ignored. The least I could do is provide context.

Christopher Columbus never saw the land that would become Chicago, after all. He would never glimpse the Great Lakes, let alone Lake Michigan. Columbus did not cross paths with Jean Baptiste Point du Sable or John Kinzie, nor did he ever cross paths with any of the tribes native to the region. The United States, as a country, was not even a dream when Columbus visited the shores of this continent, and Chicago itself, as an organized municipality, would not exist until 327 years after Columbus died. So why does a Christopher Columbus statue stand in Chicago today?

The period of American history from 1870-1900 is called the Gilded Age. As a natural consequence to a time of incredible industrial growth and immigration, there almost always follows a rise in class tension, and this age was no different. Noticing this, beginning in the late 1880s, civic leaders across the country began to float ideas and theorize about distinguishing the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the New World with a new, American World's Fair. World's Fairs in Europe had been successful in bringing together societies fragmenting across classes and leaders in places such as New York City, Washington D.C., St. Louis, and Chicago expressed interest in hosting such a fair to promote their cities. It was concluded that it would be called the World's Columbian Exposition and that Congress would have to decide on the location.

The name "Columbia," had been in use since at least the 1730s as the female personification of the United States and was the historically poetic name for the Americas and the New World. Derived initially as a new Latin toponym from Christopher Columbus' last name, it's where institutions such as the former King's College drew inspiration after the American revolution when they became the Ivy League's Columbia University and where Chicago's own Columbia College take their name. It's why the U.S. Capitol was coined the District of Columbia. It's where one of the unofficial U.S. National Anthems before 1931 and the current ceremonial entrance march for the Vice President of the United States, "Hail, Columbia", takes its title and refrain. It's in the name of Columbia Pictures and the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) and countless other cities and towns and artistic representations found across and within the history of North and South America. Even in the Statue of Lady Liberty is seen as an aspect of the poetic heroine of the continent.

Chicagoans, a mere 20 years removed from the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire, were eager to show off their resilience, fortitude, and innovation in rebuilding their city, and pushed hard in their bid for the Fair. After several rounds of voting by the U.S. House of Representatives, Chicago broke the majority on the 8th ballot, defeating New York's bid as the host city.

Daniel Burnham, arguably the most famous architect in city history, would oversee the construction and go on to build his famous "White City". A collection of ornate neoclassical style temporary buildings all painted white and dramatically lit with the relatively new electric light. There would be 46 countries, 34 states, and four territories that would participate and provide exhibits, among many others offered by private commercial enterprises. In a joint project between the governments of Spain and the United States, life-sized reproductions of Christopher Columbus' three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, would be constructed in Spain and sailed to America and become one of the exposition's most popular exhibits.

I won't go into too much detail as there have been many histories written of the Fair and I encourage tourists and visiting vigilantes to enjoy them. Still, there is no doubt that Chicago's 1893 Fair, the World's Columbian Exposition, was a resounding success. With its scale and grandeur far exceeding other World's Fairs at the time, it would prove to be an extraordinarily influential event across the United States and become one of the most famous events in the history of Chicago. During its six month run, the expo would draw more than 27 million visitors to Jackson Park on the South Side, the equivalent of 1/4 of the United States population at the time. Countless historically famous visitors, both American and foreign, would memorialize the Fair and draw inspiration from it, and many famous inventions we still use today would make their debut and influence even more to come. Burnham's White City is credited with initiating the "City Beautiful" movement, inspiring municipal governments to focus on the beautification of their cities in their public streets, art, buildings, and park spaces.

The Columbian Exposition was so significant to Chicago's history it is memorialized as the 3rd star on the city's iconic flag.

A statue, commissioned by the Columbus Memorial Building for the opening of the 1893 Exposition, was created by an American sculptor named Moses Ezekiel. Ezekiel would complete his bronze statue of Christopher Columbus on July 22, 1892. Before it shipped to Chicago, it received the blessing of Pope Leo XIII. First displayed at the Fair's Italian Pavilion, it was eventually moved to Columbus Plaza of Arrigo Park in the Little Italy neighborhood of Chicago.

Aww shucks...hold on just a moment. Let me check my notes...

Oops. You know what? Silly me. That's a different statue of Columbus in Chicago. The statue of Christopher Columbus in Grant Park is the one that bore the brunt of last week's onslaught. My mistake. Chicago is just so good at being better than other cities at World's Fair's and festivals that we often get confused about which amazing event people might be referring. Let's back up.

Produced by a Milanese-born Italian immigrant named Carl Brioschi, the statue in Grant Park was commissioned by Chicago's Italian-American community in 1933. The community raised the funds and donated the statue in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the founding of Chicago and to coincide with Chicago's second World's Fair, the 1933 Century of Progress. Dedicated on Italian Day, Bishop Bernard J. Shiel blessed the monument in front of tens of thousands of residents. The Art Deco style granite base features carved depictions of the Santa Maria, Columbus' most famous ship that sailed from Spain, as well as Paolo Toscanelli, the famous astronomer and mathematician who charted the course of the journey, it includes Columbus’ tutor Amerigo Vespucci, who theorized that the world was round and for whom the American continent was named, and it displays the city seal of Genoa, Columbus’ birthplace. Sculptural busts on the four corners of the base of the monument represent Faith, Courage, Freedom, and Strength. The community not only wanted to commemorate the Genovese navigator's accomplishments as a hero of the Italian people, but intended to convey the spirit of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

The theme of Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress was technological innovation and was meant to inspire Americans, stuck in the thick of the Great Depression, to imagine a happier future for their democratic republic driven by technical prowess and innovation. The motto of the 1933 Century of Progress was, "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts." A message that science and American life were wedded and the statue from Italian immigrants a gift representing the spirit of exploration poetically personified in Columbus' journey that would be at the heart of the technological progress and innovation of the American people.

Not all was perfect at the 1893 Fair, of course, a fact not lost on the organizers of the 1933 Century of Progress. The black community of Chicago, having been freed from slavery less than three decades prior to the Columbian Exposition and just as eager as any Chicagoans to impress with the progress they'd made in such little time, largely felt ignored and left out. While there were exhibits featuring black and indigenous exhibitors approved by the organizers, a specific African-American presentation was refused and the "White City" term appeared to some residents to be of particular slight. People like Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Irvine Garland Penn, and Ferdinand Lee Barnet made this feeling known. To try to correct such shortcomings of the previous fair, the 1933 Century of Progress organizers took the opportunity to address it directly, referring to their fair as the "Rainbow City" and decorating many of their Moderne architectural style buildings in multi-colored paint.

While smaller in scope than the fair held 40 years earlier, the 1933 Century of Progress would be considered just as successful. The first year's run was so successful, the city decided to keep it around for a six month encore that ran through October of 1934. Nearly 50 million paying customers would visit the site at Northerly Island and the Century of Progress would be the first in American history to pay for itself before the gates officially closed. No small feat during the Great Depression.

The 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair would also receive special memorial due to its historical significance in Chicago and it is represented by the 4th star on the city's flag.

So where is this little history going?

As you rewatch the videos of the violent encounter last week shared on social media, I only hope this brief history helps inform and guide your conversation with family and friends.

Even if we are to admit that racism and conquest are a sad and unfortunate part of our collective history (NOTE: I am and do), and no matter how hard we wish otherwise they almost certainly will continue long into humanity's collective future based on all the evidence heretofore presented, that doesn’t erase the many perspectives of historical reality and it doesn't erase the context in which these monuments were erected. No doubt, these Christopher Columbus statues are from an earlier time but they were not monuments to a Confederacy that sought to continue to enslave and that would go on to attempt to secede and separate from the Union for the right to do so. They were not monuments to historical wars against and victories over any of the indigenous tribes that once occupied the area. Further, even in those earlier times when the views and perspectives held by the average northern American citizen may seem abhorrent to a person of today, these statues were not monuments to racism or bigoted hatred no matter how hard the revisionists attempt to redefine and relitigate and rewrite their history.

They were placed by Chicagoans who had a different opinion of their country and their city and of historical figures than some do today. They were placed by Chicagoans who saw them as monuments to unity and a positive outlook when Americans were in some of their most profound depths of despair. These Chicagoans placed their monuments and held great expositions to commemorate their commitment to the human spirit, to entrepreneurship, to ingenuity, exploration, and to the continued progress of what they and we try our best to continue to create, a great society moving ever onward and toward a higher and potentially greater and more perfect ideal. They were monuments placed by Chicagoans in their own time to tell all who would come after they were gone that they, like us, were here and that this is what they believed and hoped the future would recognize in them.

Do not mistake my little opinion piece as a passionate personal defense of Christopher Columbus's deeds or the ultimate consequences of his journey. My point is not to take a political position regarding the physical statue in Grant Park or any Columbus statue or any town named Columbus or any thing or idea that may be inspired by or invoked in etymology that includes his name. That is not for me to decide. There may be individuals who do not like the Columbus statue and, in their modern reexamination of history, may wish to see them removed. That's okay. There are ways to petition for their removal. And if a community decides it wants some of its monuments and some of its history shelved or moved into a dusty museum basement, if it no longer sees purpose for or no longer wants to continue to honor and display a certain history in some of its public works, that’s the community's prerogative to adapt and change and present themselves to posterity as they see fit.

But it is not an individual decision and an individual decision alone. There are no Kings in Chicago. And no matter how loud a mob screams and chants and cries in want of something, the level of their tantrum is not equal to any justification to receive or obligation to give in to what they want. Ideally, this should be a lesson learned as children though I am aware that not all were lucky enough to have earnest parents, quality teachers, or strong role models. A reality on parade in Grant Park last Friday night.

Everyone in that rioting mob is entitled to their opinion on matters of history and its figures. God knows, I have mine. And everyone in that rioting mob is free to plead their case to convince me to change my opinion one way or another. That this country allows for and accommodates these conversations is a blessing and it is that particular element of last week in which I take issue.

And I do take issue. I take issue with the violent demands of those who want to tear down and erase the pieces of the collective history of which I am a part. The history of which my family is a part. The history of Chicago, of which we are a part. I take issue with the violent demands from some unknown someone from some unknown somewhere who has decided that this history is no longer allowed to be celebrated and hides behind a mask refusing to have any discussion or conversation about why that history is no longer allowed to be celebrated. And I take issue with the selfish and childish decisions made by all who encourage and enable the mob for whatever political ends that do not involve anyone but themselves.

I take issue and you should take issue and they should take issue, too. Because it will not end with the fall of an explorer in Grant Park, but will most certainly end in their own.

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more!

Subscribe Now
Already have an account? Sign In.
You've successfully subscribed to the Chicago Journal.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your billing info is updated.