The Great Navigator

Ernest A. Brown photo/ This plaque honoring Christopher Columbus as a great navigator and discoverer was dedicated at Columbus Square by the City of Woonsocket on August 15, 1937.

WOONSOCKET – Poor Christopher Columbus.

These days, the artistic renderings of the Italian explorer, carved in stone or fused in metal, are just as likely to be vandalized as they are to be carted off to some safe and unseen location for protection.

Around here, however, the bronze tablet erected in tribute to Columbus many years ago appears to have suffered an even greater rebuke. It's been pretty much forgotten.

Where the heck is Columbus Square?” wondered former Mayor Charlie Baldelli, when asked if he knew of the site.

While Baldelli has a keen recollection for the city's Italo-American traditions, his register of Columbus Square and the marker there that pays tribute to the man credited with discovering America is probably similar to most city residents.

But in the days before Autumnfest (canceled this year due to the pandemic, of course) became virtually synonymous with Columbus Day, if not the long weekend itself, Columbus Square was the scene of what passed for a ceremonial observance of the holiday for many years. Newspaper stories of the day advancing the weekend's lineup of events are peppered with terms like “paucity” and “dearth” when it came to summing up what there was to do on the holiday, pointing folks to Providence for entertainment.

Members of the long-defunct Sons of Italy fraternal group dutifully paid tribute to Columbus on his namesake day, however. Carrying a wreath, the president of the club would climb a ladder at the junction of Green Street, Hamlet Avenue and Carrington Avenue, and hoist the garland about the likeness of Columbus as proud members of the club looked on to revere one of the world's most famous Italians.

The scene played out for decades on Columbus Day, as recently as 1968, according to in the yellow-tinged newspaper clippings in the archives of The Call, whose photographers were often on hand to capture the moment.

It's easy to miss, but the metal plaque bearing the visage of Columbus, erected in 1937, still stands. Perched atop a pole that's roughly seven feet high, the marker is about the size of a telephone book, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character.

The tablet, weathered by time, has acquired a greenish patina and is topped with statuette-like figures of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria – the mini-armada of ships that Columbus sailed across the ocean blue from Europe to what became the Americas in the 15th century. The tablet also features an ornate border of marine rope.

In Honor of the Great Navigator and Discoverer,” it says, along with the date the tribute was unveiled.

I don't think most people even know it's there,” says Larry Poitras, a member of the Woonsocket Historical Society and former principal of Good Shepherd Catholic Regional School.

But Poitras, who may be best known as a talk show host on radio station WNRI of late, isn't most people. For many years, Poitras taught a course on strictly local history. He used to lead his pupils on field trips to show them living reminders of the past, and the Columbus tablet was a regular stop.

SOME RESEARCH in the archives of The Call reveals the story of how the marker came to be.

It goes back to Sept. 15, 1915, when a group of Italian-American immigrants in the city formed the Gabriele D'Annunzio Lodge of Sons of Italy, according to a hand-written history – not a newspaper clipping – of the organization that was in a Call file labeled “Sons of Italy.” After two years, the group's efforts to form a fraternal organization folded, but the would-be founders didn't give up the ship.

Two years later, they regrouped and this time, the Sons of Italy stuck around for a while. Growing to nearly 400 members at one point, the SOI launched baseball and football teams, awarded scholarships and gave money to charitable causes, including the expansion of what was then called Woonsocket Hospital, now Landmark Medical Center. The group was formed, according to the history document, “for the purpose of uniting the Italians and Italo-Americans of this city” and to “help its members become American citizens and to invite them to take an active part in the political life of this country in order that they may be better able to exercise their rights as American citizens and more fully appreciate the greatness of this country.”

In 1937, according to the history, the D'Annunzio Lodge, along with other Italo-American groups, spearheaded a drive to recognize a prominent location as Columbus Square. Along with the unveiling of the tablet of its namesake, the square was dedicated on Aug. 15, of that year, during a ceremony that dovetailed with the national convention of the Sons of Italy that was taking place in the city.

As Poitras points out, calling attention to historical structures that honor Columbus during this volatile era of American life may be a dicey proposition.

Sponsored by Queen Isabella of Spain (the Italians wouldn't back him), Columbus sailed from Europe to the Carribean four times from the late 1400s to 1502 and is often credited not just with discovering the New World, but opening its doors to future generations of European settlers to create a modern chapter of western civilization.

But detractors have been rewriting the Columbus narrative for many years now. They say he should be remembered not for opening up a new frontier but for the trail of colonialism, enslavement and genocide of native Americans he left in his wake.

His mixed legacy is reflected in the haphazard manner we mark Columbus Day in the United States – if we mark it at all. The Pew Research Center calls Columbus Day “one of the most inconsistently celebrated” holidays in the nation, for example.

It's one of 10 federal holidays, which means federal workers get a paid day off and the banks and stock market are closed. But Rhode Island is one of only 23 states that follow suit, while three others – Maine, South Dakota and New Mexico – have changed the name to Indigenous People's Day.

This spring, after George Floyd, a Black man, was slain at the hands of police in Minneapolis, the killing added fuel to the fire of social unrest engulfing statues and other controversial symbols that some find off-putting. Many longstanding markers have been vandalized, or worse, prompting public officials to put them in storage.

You didn't have to look far for examples. Amid calls for its removal, a prominent statue of Columbus in the Elmwood section of Providence was vandalized for at least the second time in June, and Mayor Jorge Elorza finally ordered it to be removed. Presently, the statue remains housed at an undisclosed location pending a recommendation on what should happen to it from Elorza's “Special Committee for Commemorative Works.

“We want our community's voice centered in the decisions made around the memorials, historical markers and monuments that represent our city,” he said at the time.

It's that kind of anti-Columbus blowback that gave Poitras pause as he participated in a discussion that calls attention to Columbus Square in the city.

He feared the plaque might become a bullseye for activists who see such structures as a legitimate target to press their case for social change.

God knows what they're capable of,” he says. “It's sad we even have to think that way.”

Baldelli may not have known where Columbus Square is until a few days ago, but all of the negative attention that's been showered on Columbus in recent years piqued his curiosity about the explorer's legacy and prompted him to do his own research. He's convinced that the famed seaman's reputation is unfairly maligned in the reformist narrative that's emerging around Columbus.

He wasn't a cruel man or an oppressor,” said Baldelli. “He was none of that.”

One of the most overlooked facets of Columbus' life was that he was a man of great compassion and deep religious conviction. Baldelli points out that by the end of his life, Columbus became a lay member of the Franciscan order, living a priestly existence based on the word of the Gospel.

No matter what happened en route to Columbus discovering America, Baldelli can't believe he had it in his heart to do wrong.

Raymond Bacon, also a member of the Woonsocket Historical Society and a former history teacher at Woonsocket High School, is inclined to agree.

If you're going to get picky about these things you'll find something wrong in everything,” Bacon says. “We have to understand their thinking in their time.”

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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