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OUTRAGED – Removal of Christopher Columbus Statue in Newark NJ

When the City of Newark, New Jersey went to bed on Thursday, June 26th, a secret plot was unfolding. As the clock struck midnight, a group of Newark police officers and city employees in the dark of night descended on the statue of Christopher Columbus at Bloomfield Avenue and North 8th Street. An order had been given directly by the Mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka – take down the statue! A work crew arrived from the Bismark Construction Corporation, a company that is awarded most of Newark’s work and had no idea how to remove the monument, nor the heavy equipment to take it down. Their intent was to break up the beautiful statue, carved from a slab of Vermont granite, handpicked by legendary former Italian Tribune Publisher Ace Alagna. The monument had graced the plaza adjacent to the St. Francis Xavier Church for nearly 50 years.

For at least a week preceding the incident, Buddy Fortunato, longtime Publisher of the Italian Tribune and son-in-law of the late Ace Alagna, had heard rumblings from friends in the Newark City government that there was going to be an attempt to remove the statue. He tried to set up a meeting with the Mayor of Newark to discuss the recent escalation of civil uprisings and our concern for the statue which is owned by the Italian Tribune. The Mayor did not return his call, but numerous officials and police department personnel assured Buddy that the statue was safe. They were wrong – in fact the statue was in imminent danger of being forever destroyed. After receiving assurances all week long that nothing was amiss, Thursday evening a call from a friend was received by Mr. Fortunato and was told that an order had been issued by the Mayor’s office for the statue to come down during the cover of darkness at midnight!

If left to the Mayor, the statue would be demolished. That heinous act could not be allowed to occur, so the wheels were swiftly set in motion to preserve the statue in the only way possible, with its safe removal from its present location.

Negotiations, even at that late hour of the night took a considerable amount of time, but ultimately, a deal was struck. Buddy Fortunato was given 24 hours to remove it and the Italian Tribune paid to have it done. As one might imagine, the removal of an eight-ton carved granite statue requires specialized equipment, but the following morning a large crane and rigging crew was assembled to safely remove the statue from its pedestal, to be secured on a truck for transportation. An operation such as this is usually set up weeks in advance. In this case, Buddy Fortunato had only hours to accomplish the impossible and preserve the legacy of Ace Alagna, as well as the honor of all Italian Americans who feel a deep connection and respect for Columbus – a symbol for all Italian Americans and a testament  to the Italian immigrants who built the City of Newark.

A minor miracle to some, but an emotionally draining string of events that frankly should never had occurred. The statue has been safely removed to a secure location. In Buddy’s words as spoken to Joe Piscopo during an interview on the talk show host’s popular morning radio show (970 AM), Monday, June 29th  – “Chris is safe and resting.”

These events have shown that Mayor Ras Baraka has no grasp of history, nor any understanding of the respect that Italian Americans have for Columbus. It is equally appalling that the Mayor does not have any respect for his constituency, which includes people of Dominican, Haitian, West Indian and Puerto Rican origin who also hold the legacy of Columbus in the highest regard; a passage in the anthem of Puerto Rico is even dedicated to the Great Navigator. Each of those countries and commonwealths have monuments to Columbus. One would expect an educated public official to know that.

These events also illustrate that tragically, the seeds of hatred can be sown at an early age. The mayor’s father, LeRoi Jones, was a leading figure during the Newark riots of 1967 and his son still harbor’s deep resentment for the treatment of his father. Those events had nothing to do with the Italian Tribune, which in any event, Ace Alagna did not acquire until 1968. For Columbus’ part, he had died 461 years earlier, yet this latest incident confirms that the Mayor is determined to dismantle monuments that do not serve his own self interests. An act of misguided vengeance, the Mayor took the law into his own hands, which raises questions of ethics. The Mayor has now publically stated that he “did not take down the statue,” in an obvious attempt to avoid blame for its removal. Then why did city employees and Bismark Construction Corporation show up?  (Check out their client list and then tell us the Mayor didn’t give the order to take down the statue). This raises questions of his integrity. The Mayor is fooling no one with his statement.

As the statue was being removed, a Dominican gentleman approached Buddy Fortunato and introduced himself. With tears streaming down the man’s face, he told Buddy, “The leaders of Newark are dumb. We love Christopher Columbus, he is buried in the Dominican Republic.”

It is up to the readers of this newspaper to decide if the gentleman’s assertion is correct. For his part, Buddy Fortunato stated, “I’m confident that the vast majority of people want harmony in Newark and in America, but that takes leadership. When a mayor seeks empty revenge and a governor carries prejudice in his soul, instead of respect, how can any good be accomplished?”

Mr. Fortunato’s words are lessons to be learned and points well spoken. A mayor should represent all people, but how can this be accomplished if he has hatred in his heart and revenge in his soul? How will the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus make life better for the people of Newark? Will the schools flourish? Will family structure, retail and commercial areas improve? Is Newark now a better city? Additionally, how would Ras Baraka feel if his term in office was erased from history?

What both the Mayor of Newark and Phil Murphy, the Governor of New Jersey, do not grasp is that revisionist history does not improve the present. In its current manifestation, blatant attempts to rewrite history serve only to fan the flames of the ideological civil war that has now erupted in our great nation.

We do not want any reader of the Italian Tribune to believe for a moment that we took the statue down to bow to the current state of social insurrection. It was either destruction or preservation. Buddy Fortunato took the only reasonable course and at great expense.

He urges public officials to show respect when taking down monuments, anything less is a desecration; especially as hasty and ill-advised decisions are currently being made – bowing to the ignorance initiated by a vocal few. Without question, the need to remove the statue of Columbus from the City of Newark is an affront to all Italian Americans. It is also clear that bias and racism against Italian Americans is not only a phenomenon of the 19th and 20th century, but continues in some quarters to this day.

This is a painful topic to address, especially given the Italian Tribune’s long history and enormous support for the City of Newark. When the statue was erected, one of the dignitaries who spoke at the dedication was Kenneth Allen Gibson, the first African-American Mayor of Newark, who held the office for 16 years. He was followed by Sharpe James who would serve as Mayor of Newark for 20 years. Both of these men annually took part in Newark’s Columbus Day Parades, sponsored by the Italian Tribune, culminating with each of these men laying a wreath at the base of the statue that stood on Bloomfield Avenue.

The Italian Tribune, through Ace Alagna, shared a strong working relationship with Mayor Gibson, Mayor Sharpe James, Congressman Donald Payne and Councilmen Earl Harris and Calvin West. The Italian Tribune had hoped to do the same with Mayor Ras Baraka, but he has shown that he has other plans.

Those who find facts inconvenient have spread ignorance like a plague. The list of misconceptions surrounding Christopher Columbus are staggering. To dispel one such myth, Columbus did not start slavery in the New World, let alone in the nation that was to become the United States. Slavery had existed in almost every nation’s history, recorded back to the time of the ancient Greeks.

Historians use 1619 as a starting point of slavery in this nation, when 20 Africans referred to as servants arrived in Jamestown, Virginia on a Dutch ship. It is important to note that they were not the first Africans on American soil. That occurred in the previous century, when Africans arrived not as slaves, but as explorers, as part of Spanish and Portuguese expeditions.

Ras Baraka labeled Columbus a “White Supremacist,” a modern term that has no relevance or application in the time of the Great Navigator. It is a phrase that serves only to divide people.

America is named for an Italian and the fabric of its people are remarkably diverse. It was through the acceptance of this diversity that our nation became the envy of the world or at least that used to be the case. Now it seems that a fringe element has gained a voice by shouting louder than any others in an attempt to drown out the ideals and social values of a country that has and should continue to celebrate George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., Casimir Pulaski, Saint Patrick and of course, Christopher Columbus.

Since the statue of Columbus in Newark has been removed, the Italian Tribune has been deluged with phone calls and messages of support. The fevered pitch only increased following Buddy Fortunato’s appearance on the Joe Piscopo radio program. The support has been overwhelming and there has been one common theme – Italian Americans collectively need to voice our opposition to the discrimination that we are subjected to. The attacks on Columbus are nothing short of an attack on Italian American heritage. A gauntlet has been thrown down. The Italian Tribune must answer the challenge with your help or our culture will surely perish in its wake.