Nathaniel Weisenberg Introduction to Public Humanities Final Project Proposal 11/8/11 On Monday, October 11, 2010—Columbus Day in the United States—the

residents of the Elmwood neighborhood in South Providence discovered that someone had defaced a local landmark. The statue of Christopher Columbus that gives name to the square and park at the intersection of Elmwood and Reservoir Avenues was splattered with red paint, as if the Genoese explorer was covered in blood. A sign placed across Columbus’s waist read “Murderer.”1 The vandalism of the statue made national headlines and reignited passionate debates over Columbus and his legacy. In my paper, I will focus on the defacement of the statue as one of several important moments in the commemoration—or condemnation—of Columbus in Providence. I will begin by analyzing the 1892-93 celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing, including a brief overview of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One of the Exposition’s most famous displays was a silver statue of the explorer cast by Providence’s Gorham Manufacturing Company (the statue in Columbus Square is a bronze copy). I will also examine how certain factors behind the quadricentennial commemorations that Michel-Rolph Trouillot identifies in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, such as the growth of the ItalianAmerican community and the rise of the heavily Irish Catholic Knights of Columbus, manifested themselves in Providence. I will also discuss the designation of Columbus Day as a holiday by Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, the efforts to make Columbus Day a compulsory holiday in Rhode Island in the 1930s, and the widespread public debate surrounding

Mario Hilario, “Columbus Statue Vandalized with Red Paint,” NBC 10 News, October 11, 2010, available at, accessed November 8, 2011.


the 1992 quincentennial of Columbus’s landing. In each case, I am most interested in the dynamics of these issues in Providence, but will also reference broader national (and international) Columbus commemorations. In particular, I will devote attention to the commemorations and debates over Columbus at Brown. For instance, I will look at the participation of Brown students in the 1893 celebrations and the story behind the stained glass window of Columbus on campus. I will also discuss the dispute that erupted over the renaming of Columbus Day as Fall Weekend in 2009 and the approach taken by the Haffenreffer Museum’s subsequent “Reimagining Columbus, Reimagining Columbus Day” exhibit. How did each choose to represent the explorer’s legacy? I plan to rely mainly on newspaper accounts, including news articles from the Brown Daily Herald’s archives (available through the Brown Library website) and the Providence Journal (available at the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Providence Public Library) for my research on Providence’s past Columbus commemorations. In addition, I will consult the Hay Library’s Gorham Manufacturing Company archive, which contains information on the casting of the Columbus statue in Elmwood and may also give insight into the quadricentennial celebrations in the city. The Providence city archives may be another useful resource. I also hope to interview some of the students, faculty, and community members who were involved on both sides of the Fall Weekend dispute to aid my discussion of the recent debates over Columbus at Brown. As I move towards my conclusion, I plan to review how Providence and Brown’s commemorations of Columbus from the 1890s to today relate to Trouillot’s analysis. In particular, I will examine how the city and Brown’s representations fit into or challenge Trouillot’s points about commemorations as acts of sanitization and the conversion of Columbus


into an American hero in the context of the late nineteenth century. I also hope to draw lessons about how Columbus Day observances in Providence have changed from the quadricentennial to the quincentennial to the Fall Weekend dispute. Perhaps these cases point to larger conclusions about the construction and alteration of societal narratives about Columbus. Of course, I will not be able to fully explore this vast subject in my paper. Nevertheless, I hope that looking at commemorations of Columbus in one city and at one university may help lead to a greater understanding of how we attempt to come to grips with—and form and revise narratives about—complex historical issues and figures. Even controversies or acts that seem trivial, from the name of a long weekend to the defacement of a statue, may carry deeper meaning.


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