George Floyd protests

These racist tributes and monuments in the Philly region all face reckonings

Beyond the Rizzo and Columbus statues, there are at least dozen others at stake.

The Columbus monument at Penn's Landing is covered with a board asking for ideas on what to do with it

The Columbus monument at Penn's Landing is covered with a board asking for ideas on what to do with it

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

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The Philadelphia region is home to dozens of monuments, artworks and streets honoring perpetrators of violent bigotry and systemic prejudice.

This goes beyond Frank Rizzo and Christopher Columbus, although those are two of the best known examples. Activists have been trying for years to get various homages removed, arguing that even if people weren’t recognized as racist in their own time, we shouldn’t continue to lift them up.

Thanks to the sustained antiracism movement that burst into view following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police and continues around the globe, several tributes are actively being dismantled — or at least facing renewed calls for takedown.

Some of the most prominent national examples include Mississippi’s retirement of the Confederate flag, and the potential renaming of Washington D.C.’s football team.

What’s happening in the Philly area? Here’s a list of local namesakes people have called out so far this year.

Know one we missed? Hit us up.

Delaware Avenue

The roadway running alongside the Delaware River in South Philadelphia wasn’t always called Columbus Boulevard, as anyone who’s lived in the city for a while knows.

In 1989, then-City Council Majority Leader Anna Verna introduced a bill to rename the road known as Delaware Avenue. She even got U.S. Rep. Thomas Foglietta to testify in its favor in front of Council.

Backers encountered immediate protest from Native American Philadelphians and the head of the Fishtown Civic Association, who both testified in its opposition.

In 1992, the city came up with a compromise, opting to rename only the southern part of the street — hence the Spring Garden dividing line we see today. Indigenous people were never satisfied with the agreement.

“You have to understand what an insult it is to the Indian people,” George Hines, an Apache, told the Inquirer at a protest. “It would be like telling the Jewish people that you were going to honor Adolf Hitler.”

It was so controversial at the time that PennDOT held off on replacing the street signs, unsure that the name change would actually stick. Even when they did replace them to honor Columbus, Philly residents defaced them with graffiti for years. Since then, there have been repeated — yet unsuccessful — attempts to get the city to rename the boulevard back.

Philly’s Columbus monuments

Columbus monuments in the city have been the subject of scrutiny for at least half a decade. In 2015, Philly activists drafted a petition demanding then-Mayor Michael Nutter:

  • Remove the Columbus obelisk at Columbus Boulevard and Dock Street
  • Take down the statue of Columbus at Marconi Plaza at Broad and Oregon

“It’s just beyond imagination that a human being could be so horrific and inhumane toward other people and then be celebrated,” Michael Coard, a professor and activist behind the petition told 6ABC in 2015. The petition attracted 561 signatures — but failed to enact the change it sought.

The monuments have become objects of scrutiny again in 2020. After the Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza attracted armed vigilantes who sought to “protect” it, Mayor Jim Kenney is seeking to remove it altogether. There’s now a survey out to see how residents feel about the statue’s future in the city.

It’s looking like a similar fate for the Columbus obelisk on the waterfront, about which the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has promised to hear feedback through a public engagement process.

Marconi Plaza

It’s not just the Columbus statue at issue when it comes to Marconi Plaza. The park itself is also the subject of a small movement to have its name changed.

The plaza is named for Guglielmo Marconi, a 19th century Italian inventor and a member of the country’s Fascist party. He was a close friend of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who appointed him a member of the Fascist Grand Council. When he served as head of the Academy of Italy, he blocked all Jewish candidates.

Columbus tributes in Camden

Across the river, Camden removed the Columbus statue previously located in Farnham Park after protests demanding it. The city’s Mayor Frank Moran told NJ.com that it had “been a controversial symbol” that “has long pained the residents of the community,” and promised to reevaluate all of Camden’s other monuments.

At the Camden Rutgers campus, the university has promised to cover a mosaic that displays Christopher Columbus with indigenous people in subservient positions.

South Philly’s Andrew Jackson School

The Philadelphia public school at 12th and Federal streets is named after the seventh president of the United States, who owned slaves and forced 60,000 indigneous people to walk more than 5,000 miles from their ancestral homelands to a newly designed “Indian reservation.” Thousands died during the journey.

A group of parents, community members, students, educators, and alumni have come together to request the Andrew Jackson School be renamed.

Per their petition, they suggest instead honoring Fanny Jackson Coppin, a woman born into slavery. After her aunt purchased her freedom, Coppin moved to Philly and taught at the Institute for Colored Youth at 7th and Lombard and became a well-known educator.

Protesters assault the Frank Rizzo statue in front of MSB. It was removed shortly thereafter.

Protesters assault the Frank Rizzo statue in front of MSB. It was removed shortly thereafter.

Emma Lee / WHYY

The Rizzo relics

It’s been a month since the prominent statue honoring former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo was officially removed from outside the Municipal Services Building. It had been a focal point for years.

After George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, activists hung a sign around its reading, “This system is still racist.”

In the seven years since, activists have repeatedly demanded the statue be removed due to Rizzo’s legacy of racism and brutality. But it took the ongoing demonstrations after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky to finally shake the statue from its stand outside the MSB. Municipal workers removed the statue overnight in early June.

“The Frank Rizzo statue represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long,” Kenney wrote in an Instagram post. “It is finally gone.‬”

A few days later, the Rizzo mural in the Italian Market met the same fate. Mural Arts Philadelphia painted over his portrait with consent from the property owner. Now, the organization is planning a new mural to replace it.

Public spaces named for Justice Taney

The movement to rename the side street that runs north-south between 26th and 27th streets began years ago. Launched by a Temple University student, the effort has been reinvigorated in the last few weeks.

The street is named for Roger B. Taney, the fifth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who authored the infamous Dred Scott decision. The landmark case declared that enslaved Black people couldn’t petition the courts for freedom, even if they entered a free state.

In 2018, Philly organized a petition to City Council to change the street’s name — but nothing came of it.

A similar renaming effort exists for Taney Baseball Field at Schuylkill River Park. Neighbors drafted a petition to rename the public space for Philly youth baseball star Mo’ne Davis.

George Whitefield statue at Penn

There’s been a monument to George Whitefield at Penn’s Quad for the past 101 years.

The England native moved to America in the 1740s before it gained independence, and he established a ministry here. When some of his wealthy congregants offered him enslaved African people and a South Carolina plantation, he gladly accepted.

Whitefield opened an orphanage on a plantation he owned outside Savannah, Georgia, and insisted he needed enslaved workers to continue its operation — even though the trustees of the colony had already banned slavery. Whitefield became a leading supporter of slavery in Georgia, helping to get the practice re-legalized in the 18th century.

For the last year and a half, columnists for the Daily Pennsylvanian have argued the statue should be removed — or at least offer more context on Whitefield’s full truth.

The Flyers’ Kate Smith statue

Before the Flyers snagged their first Stanley Cup in 1974, American singer Kate Smith performed a rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Her performance was tied to the Philly team’s triumph. For decades, the recording was played before must-win games, and a statue was made in her honor in 1987.

But Smith’s legacy suffered a blow in April 2019, when past racist songs performed by the artist resurfaced.

Her likeness outside the Wells Fargo Center didn’t last much longer. The Flyers organization quickly covered up the statue with black fabric — then took it down altogether. The team also removed Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” from its music library.

South Jersey schools named for Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson, former U.S. President and governor of New Jersey, is known for calling segregation a “benefit” and insisting that enslaved Black people were “happy and well-cared for.”

He screened in the White House the racist film “Birth of a Nation,” which is now credited for a resurgence of the KKK. And as president of Princeton University, Wilson denied admission to Black students on the basis of race.

The legacy of the country’s 28th president is finally facing a reckoning in New Jersey.

The Camden public school named for Wilson announced earlier this week that it intends to change its name this summer. Same goes for Princeton’s school of policy and international affairs, which will now be known as “First College.”

Confederate monuments at Gettysburg

Despite some protests and petitions, confederate tributes will stay at Gettysburg National Military Park for the foreseeable future.

There are more than 1,325 monuments, markers, and plaques that commemorate people who fought during the Battle of Gettysburg — many of them honoring confederate soldiers. The National Park Service recently released a statement saying they represent an “important, if controversial, chapter in our nation’s history.”

“It is the policy of the National Park Service that these works and their inscriptions will not be altered, relocated, obscured, or removed, even when they are deemed inaccurate or incompatible with prevailing present-day values,” the statement reads.

Want some more? Explore other George Floyd protests stories.

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Tagged

Racism, History