Mixed views in suburbs, too, about Columbus statue coming down in Chicago

Fraught emotions involving Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s mothballing of two Christopher Columbus statues isn’t just confined to the city — it also resonates in the suburbs.

Early Friday while much of the region slept, city workers removed one Columbus statue in Grant Park that had sparked a violent clash between police and protesters July 17, and a second in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood.

“Columbus wasn’t actually a hero for our people,” said Native American Joseph Standing Bear Schranz, president of the Midwest SOARRING Foundation, based in Lockport. “He didn’t discover America. We were already here.”

But for St. Charles businessman Ron Onesti, the statue is a symbol of the hard work and dreams of his forefathers when they arrived in America as immigrants from Italy.

“We are obviously deeply saddened not only by what happened (removal of the statues) but the method by which it happened,” said Onesti, president of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.

“We as a community have worked very hard to keep our heritage alive. By just taking away those statues, you are disrespecting the contributions Italian Americans made to the development of the city and the country.”

Lightfoot’s action “comes in response to demonstrations that became unsafe for both protesters and police, as well as efforts by individuals to independently pull the Grant Park statue down in an extremely dangerous manner,” the mayor said in a statement.

Renewed action to stop systemic racism this summer spurred calls to eliminate Columbus statues across the nation, with proponents saying the Italian explorer is responsible for the deaths of millions of Indigenous people in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“I’m very happy it was taken down, and it should have been many years ago,” said Schranz, who is half Ojibwe and half German. “I was never sure why there are statues in his honor. He never did anything very honorable.”

Lightfoot said the decision was “about an effort to protect safety,” and she called for a dialogue in the coming days about the future of all Chicago’s statues, memorials and murals, and how to elevate the city’s history and diversity.

Onesti, CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. that manages the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, said he understood wanting to remove the statues as a short-term solution to stop the violence, “but it’s crucial the Italian American community be involved in discussions about their future.”

“We, too, as a culture have been discriminated against and stereotyped,” Onesti said. His grandparents arrived in America with “just a few dollars in their pockets,” he said, and worked hard to create a new life for their children.

“We will not let their efforts go by the wayside. You can take our statues, but you can’t take our spirit away.”

Schranz, who celebrates his heritage one way by helping to organize an annual Harvest PowWow at Naper Settlement, noted the high suicide rate among Native Americans.

“There’s a lack of self-esteem from living in a country that’s ours and is not ours. It was always thrown in our face that we are second- or third-class (citizens). Yet we love this country,” Schranz said.

The Rev. Michelle Oberwise Lacock, who was born in McHenry County and is of Lakota heritage, supports taking down the statues. But she suggested they should offer a history lesson rather than be stowed away from public view.

One solution would be “if some museum took the statues or they were put on display to explain the history of Columbus and how the settlers came over and treated native people, so it puts it in context,” said Oberwise Lacock, a co-chair of the United Methodist Church’s Northern Illinois Conference Committee on Native American Ministries.

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