The rise and fall of the statue of Christopher Columbus

The statue was erected in 1931 with good intentions, but with time sparked protests

A man holding an American flag kneels on a statue.
Gabriel Black Elk, who is Lakota, kneels on the neck of a fallen statue of Christopher Columbus and holds an American flag with the names of Native Americans killed by police at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Until it was pulled down, many Minnesotans didn’t even know there was a statue of Columbus on the Capitol grounds. But on the day it was unveiled in October 1931, tens of thousands of people showed up for the event.

According to Kate Beane, Dakota scholar and director of the Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society, the intentions behind the statue were good.

"It was put up as a as a way of speaking to discrimination that Italian Americans had been dealing with,” said Beane, who is a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe.

Photo of 1931 ceremony unveiling Columbus state at the state Capitol
Approximately 24,000 people attended the unveiling of a state of Christopher Columbus on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds on Oct. 12, 1931. That same year Gov. Floyd B. Olson declared Columbus Day an official state holiday.
Minneapolis Star Journal | Minnesota Historical Society

For years, Italian immigrants were considered ethnic outsiders by the Northern Europeans who came to Minnesota before them. The statue was meant to lift up all Italians, by honoring the most notable Italian in United States history at the time.

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“But as we move forward in time, certain voices are added into this narrative that were previously excluded” said Beane. “So, those memories and those narratives shift and change over time — and rightfully so.”

Beane said the statue is problematic because it served to erase centuries of Native American history and glorified a person who enslaved Native people.

The statue is not necessarily gone for good. While activists knocked it down, it’s still in the possession of the state.

Paul Mandell, executive secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, which is responsible for approving any changes to the Capitol grounds, said the board is planning to meet after the state Legislature’s special session to talk about what to do next because “we don't have any process for how to handle removals; we've never done this before.”

The board is chaired by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who has stated publicly her support for the statue’s removal. The lieutenant governor, who is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said it’s important that all people feel welcome on the grounds of the State Capitol.

But many people who visit the Capitol won’t find their history reflected in the statues. The majority are of white men. There are women who decorate the Capitol building, but they represent ideas, not actual historic figures. Many are dressed in Grecian robes or are naked. There are monuments to workers which depict diverse groups of people, but no one specifically. The only statue of an actual person of color is Chief Wabasha, a Mdewakanton-Dakota leader involved in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

According to Mandell, just as the civil rights and women's rights movements were gaining momentum in the United States, so was interest in abstract public art.

“The trend is still away from literal or figurative and more towards ‘multi-depth’ because they want people to come back and study it more,” explained Mandell. “They don't want you to say ‘been there, done that — don't have to go look at it again.’”

Nellie Stone Johnson
Public Domain

There’s a monument on the Capitol lawn that memorializes NAACP leader Roy Wilkins who grew up in St. Paul, and there’s a tribute to 23 Minnesota suffragettes. But visitors will see their names, not their faces. They accompany abstract sculptures and gardens that are designed to encourage repeat visits.

One new figurative statue is scheduled to go up next year, of civil rights and labor leader Nellie Stone Johnson. It will be installed in a prominent place inside the Capitol building, just off the rotunda.

Aside from that, even if tastes change back from abstract to figurative, it will likely take years before new statues are seen around the State Capitol. Mandell said commissioning and installing a new sculpture takes an average three to six years, and costs around $400,000.