PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia must remove the plywood box it placed over a statue of Christopher Columbus after 2020 protests over racial injustice, a judge ruled Friday.
In her ruling, Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said that if the city disagrees with the “message” the statue sends, it can add its own plaque with what it wants to convey.
“More to the point, the City accepted the donation of the Columbus statue in 1876. It has a fiduciary duty to preserve that statue, which it designated an historic object in 2017. The Columbus statue is not City property as is, for example, a City snowblower,” the judge wrote.
Kevin Lessard, spokesman for Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney, said the ruling disappointed officials but the city will respect the judge’s decision and remove the box as soon as it’s “practically and logistically feasible.”
“We will also 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,” Lessard said via email.
The statue has been the subject of a long-running dispute between the city and the Friends of Marconi Plaza, where the likeness stands.
It dates to 1876 and was presented to the city by the Italian-American community to commemorate the nation’s centennial, according to the 16-page ruling from the state’s Commonwealth Court.
Supporters say they consider Columbus an emblem of the deep Italian heritage in the city. A message seeking comment on Friday’s ruling from the attorney representing the statue’s supporters was not immediately answered.
Kenney has said Columbus was venerated for centuries as an explorer but had a “much more infamous” history, enslaving Indigenous people and imposing punishments such as severing limbs or even death.
After protests about racial injustice began in June 2020 and some of them focused on the statue, Kenney ordered its removal, calling it a matter of public safety. But last year a judge reversed the city’s decision, however, saying it had failed to provide evidence that the statue’s removal was necessary to protect the public.
The box covering the statue has been painted in green, white and red bands, mirroring the Italian flag, at the request of the city council member who represents the district.