Whatever happened to those Columbus and Caesar Rodney statues taken down in Wilmington?

Marina Affo
Delaware News Journal

CORRECTION: The shooting statistics for this year in Wilmington were incorrect in previous versions of this story. 

As the world grappled with the killing of Black men and women like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others last summer, Wilmington had its own reckoning. 

Statues of Christopher Columbus and Caesar Rodney came down in early June after national and local protests. Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki said it would be an opportunity for public discussion about what the monuments mean for the city and what should be done with them.

Since then, however, the statues have been kept in storage. The promise of tackling racial disparities has been overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to get the new City Council underway, according to city officials. 

"What we do is driven in large part by concerns expressed during public protests locally and nationally," said Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Communications John Rago in a text message to Delaware Online/The News Journal. 

Worker remove a statue of Christopher Columbus in Wilmington, Delaware, on June 12, 2020.

Although there are no city-organized events and discussions planned to address the underlying racial tensions throughout the city, Rago said, "this issue is on our radar screen daily" while addressing the other issues in the city like housing, public safety, education and health services.

CONTEXTAs historical monuments fall nationwide, Delaware grapples with what these symbols represent

Advocates and activists say the statues coming down was a step, but greater steps now need to be taken.

Delaware Online/The News Journal will be hosting a community conversation at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, streamed live on Facebook, about what happens now that the statues are down to create meaningful change. Panelists will include Mike Brickner, head of the ACLU of Delaware; Ernest “Trippi” Congo, Wilmington City Council president; Carissma McGee, a field organizer and activist; John Toedtman, executive director of the Caesar Rodney Institute; and Theodore Davis Jr., a political science and international relations professor at the University of Delaware.

"I feel like there's so much more that has to be done," said Shaheed Banks, who led protests in Wilmington after George Floyd's death last year. "We need to hold the government officials accountable."

The Wilmington resident said government officials have been making promises for a long time, but now it is time to actually do something to improve race relations.

Protesters listen to speakers in Rodney Square in a series of protests in 2020 in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota.

And change can start small, he said, like replacing the statues with memorials for people making an impact today. He pointed out his mentor and longtime activist LaDaye Johnson, who was recently awarded a national Jefferson Award for community service. 

A more holistic look at how to represent Wilmington's history is one way to not only address the issue of monuments, but to also push for real change, said Mike Brickner, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware. 

"Oftentimes we look back at Black history and sort of have a romanticized vision of what happened during the civil rights era in the 1960s and 70s," he said. "But there's considerably less attention paid to things that happen, for instance, after reconstruction, and some of the very tumultuous history, back in the 1800s, post-Civil War, or even a history and a reckoning of how slavery happened." 

Brickner said that to move forward, changes have to be made in important areas like education, housing and the legal system. 

"I think most people, if you ask what they would like in terms of race relations in this country, is for everybody to have opportunities for people to be free to live the life that they wish to live, without fear of being harassed or injured or killed," he said, "to be able to get education, to be able to get access to health care, to do all the things that we that are supposed to make America great, but unfortunately, large proportions of our community have never had true access to." 

Protesters listen to speakers in Rodney Square in a series of protests in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota earlier this week.

Protests and riots erupted last summer over police brutality around the country but also locally in the city. Family members of Lymond Moses, a 30-year-old man who was shot and killed by police three weeks ago, are seeking answers now. 

Gun violence is also at a high. So far in 2021 in Wilmington, there have been 14 shootings with 18 victims, three of whom died.

2020 was a particularly violent year in the city, with 133 shootings, which includes 26 homicides. That was the most violent year since 2017, which saw 166 shootings with 31 homicides. 

For many, the Confederate flag monument in Georgetown and other symbols and figures of contention – like Caesar Rodney, who owned slaves, and Christopher Columbus, whose mistreatment of indigenous people has long sparked backlash – were reminders of histories they wanted to see gone, but also small beginnings to solving a larger, present issue. 

As the statues were removed last year, some commented that they wanted to see them replaced with those of civil rights activists through time. 

"When people talk about Black Lives Matter, that's a very important message that we want to get across and the question is how you do it," Mayor Purzycki said shortly after the statues were taken down. 

In December, former City Council President Hanifa Shabazz introduced a bill to create a reparations task force to explore "issues of systemic racial disparity, racist practices and procedures and/or institutional discrimination against African Americans" in Wilmington.

This was an eleventh-hour bill right as Shabazz was on her way out after losing her reelection bid. She was replaced by Ernest “Trippi” Congo. 

Congo said the ideas of racial equality are important to him and that the council will be discussing the matter. He also said part of his hope is to look beyond relationships with police and turn a heavier focus on education and mentorship so young people – particularly young Black men in the city – can have opportunities to escape violence at a young age. 

Trippi Congo is now leading Wilmington City Council and has been tasked with championing these issues with a new council.

Though the bill was passed, no task force has been created. It is now the responsibility of an entirely new City Council, which has yet to bring up the topic.

Congo said he wants to be a council of action and is in the early stages of creating a mentorship program that works with organizations already doing the work. 

As for the statues taken down, Congo said they should never go back up or even be put in museums. 

"I think it's a slap in the face to even have the discussion about bringing them back," he said. "And no disrespect to the artists, and the families who made those statues, but they can't be in a public place. They're just too sensitive of an issue for us to even entertain that." 

Contact Marina Affo at 302-353-0375 or maffo@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @marina_affo