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South St. Louis Columbus statue stirs 'serious conversation about the past,’ Wash U historian says

Washington University historian Peter Kastor joined host Don Marsh for a special Columbus Day segment of St. Louis on the Air to discuss Christopher Columbus's complex legacy.

This summer, Tower Grove Park administrators announced the establishment of a commission to address mounting calls to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus currently exhibited in the public park.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh addressed the issue of Columbus’s complex legacy with Peter Kastor, professor and chair of the Department of History at Washington University.

Marsh also heard from Bill Reininger, the executive director of Tower Grove Park, regarding the status of the commission tasked with determining the future of the Columbus statue.

Though the commission has yet to meet, Reininger explained that there are three potential outcomes to the debate about the statue: maintenance, removal or “using interpretive signage to better showcase the history from both points of view.”

The conversation surrounding this particular statue serves to localize a national dialogue around the memorializing of controversial historical figures.

Columbus represents different things for different groups of people, which according to Kastor is what makes discussing his legacy so important.

Native American communities tend to perceive Columbus as a colonist and purveyor of indigenous genocide; Italian-American communities, conversely, view the Genoa-born explorer as “their way of feeling like a part of the national community,” Kastor said.

The commission will be taking the perspectives of both identity groups into consideration, in addition to consulting art historians about the statue’s artistic significance.

During the discussion, Kastor pushed back against concerns that statue removal is tantamount to historical erasure.

“Think about how much Americans learned over the last year about the Civil War, about Jim Crow, in all of the conversations about removing statues… this is often how Americans learn their history,” Kastor suggested.

Members of the community also weighed in during the conversation.

Thirteen-year-old caller Savannah pointed out that voices of color are critical to the dialogue, referencing an audio clip of solely white park-goers sharing their – predominantly positive – views on the statue.

Another caller asked statue proponents to consider the legitimacy of the account the statue teaches, calling a positive version of Columbus’s narrative “'his'-story, because he got to write the story.”

Though Kastor did not offer an explicit opinion on the question of the statue’s removal, he did praise the park’s deliberative process.

“The decision about what to do with the statue,” he said, “should be a community building exercise; it should be an exercise in civic education.”

Related: Tower Grove Park Columbus statue faces uncertain future

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.