A Pennsylvania court ruled on Friday that the City of Philadelphia must remove the plywood box covering a statue of Christopher Columbus that, in recent years, has been a source of contentious debate over colonialism and heritage.
The 146-year-old marble statue — among the first in the U.S. dedicated to the Italian explorer who sailed to the Americas on behalf of Spain more than 500 years ago — has been particularly divisive in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, which prompted protests against racial injustice and renewed conversations about polarizing landmarks.
On Friday, a panel of judges in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed a 2021 decision that had permitted the city to keep its box around the statue, effectively ending officials’ attempt to hide what it considered to be a problematic object.
Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, who issued the ruling, wrote that the city’s objection to the “message” of the statue was “somewhat opaque” and that if officials wanted to change that, they could do so with a plaque.
She added that the city had accepted the statue as a donation in 1876, during the country’s centennial, meaning that it had a responsibility to preserve the Columbus figure, which was designated a historic object in 2017.
“The Columbus statue,” Judge Leavitt wrote, “is not city property as is, for example, a city snowblower.”
Kevin Lessard, a spokesman for the city’s mayor, Jim Kenney, who had sought to remove the statue from Marconi Plaza in 2020 following racial justice protests, said in a statement that “we are very disappointed in the court’s ruling,” though he said that the city would abide by it.
“We continue to believe that the Christopher Columbus statue, which has been a source of controversy in Philadelphia, should be removed from its current position at Marconi Plaza,” Mr. Lessard said. “We are continuing to review the court’s latest ruling and are working to comply with the court’s orders, including unboxing.”
The group that sought to preserve the statue and sued the city to unbox it, Friends of Marconi Plaza, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Friday night. But a lawyer representing the group, George Bochetto, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he was “delighted” with the court’s decision.
The legal back-and-forth surrounding the 10-foot-tall statue came at a time when other statues are being taken down in American cities including Boston; Richmond, Va.; and St. Paul, Minn.
While supporters of the statue in Philadelphia have argued that it is a source of pride for people with Italian heritage, critics have said that Columbus’s arrival in the New World led to the genocide and exploitation of Indigenous populations in the Americas — a history void of reasons to celebrate the man.
Mr. Kenney appeared to agree with that sentiment on June 15, 2020, when he wrote to the city’s public art director that Columbus’s “history must be accounted for when considering whether to erect or maintain a monument to this person,” according to court documents.
The Historical Commission in Philadelphia held a public hearing on the matter later that summer, with more than 180 people voicing their opinions over six hours.
The commission recommended that the statue be removed “to advance public safety and to protect the statue,” according to court documents.
But Friends of Marconi Plaza quickly disputed that directive, saying in court that the group’s members had been “active caretakers” of the plaza for 10 years and had a direct interest in the future of the statue.
The city argued that because individuals in the group did not own property adjacent to the Columbus statue, they could not demonstrate a “particularized impact on their use and enjoyment of their property” if the statue were removed. The argument did not appear to persuade the judges.
Still, Mr. Lessard, the spokesman for the mayor, said on Friday that the city would “continue to explore our options for a way forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances of everyone’s different backgrounds.”