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Who has a right to history? In downtown Detroit, a tale of 5 statues

1. The Christopher Columbus Bust.

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

Unless you have business in downtown Detroit that takes you to the edge of the Detroit River, and requires getting out of your car, you may not have noticed the bust just off the corner of Randolph and East Jefferson.

Even if you did notice it, unless you went right up to it, you may not know that the bust honors  Christopher Columbus, “a great son of Italy” who the statue (and many history books) says “discovered America.”

The statue, of course, leaves out what the books mention, which is that Columbus was a great murderer of the Native American people.

The bust, placed “by the Italians of Detroit” in 1910 in honor of their best-known, most-achieved contributor to the western world (this side of Julius Caesar), originally went up at Washington Boulevard and Grand Circus Park. In 1988, it was moved to its spot at Randolph and Jefferson, where it remains since 26 years laters, largely without comment or controversy.

Both its placement and its relocation took place on Oct. 12, the date when Columbus landed in what we now know as America, in 1492.

2. The Joe Louis Fist.

The Fist

The Fist

But Christopher Columbus doesn’t film very well. First of all, it’s a bust, not a full-blown statue, and it’s on Randolph rather than Jefferson, one of Metro Detroit’s main roads.

So it doesn’t get nearly the attention of a piece of art just two blocks away, the Joe Louis Fist at Woodward and Jefferson.

The Fist, gifted to the city by Sports Illustrated in 1986, honors the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, the man who made Detroit the City of Champions with his performances in the boxing ring.

An unfortunate subsection of Metro Detroiters, though, don’t feel that way. They see the Joe Louis Fist, coming as it did during the Coleman Young years in City Hall, as an extension of Young’s divisive rhetoric. To hear suburbanite expatriates of Detroit tell it, they were just fine living in a declining, increasingly violent city, and would’ve stayed forever if Coleman Young hadn’t said so many mean things. The Joe Louis Fist, steps away from City Hall, was, to this unfortunate subsection, the last symbol they needed that Detroit just wasn’t their kind of town anymore.

If I hadn’t written about it myself, and seen the way people strained themselves to argue that The Fist was a racist endorsement of Black Power, and not a piece of art honoring a black man who happened to be powerful, I’d think the existence of this unfortunate subsection was a strawman. It’s not. People really believe it. When told the truth, they offer a lot of “but still,”as if the juiciness of the narrative removes the need for it to be true.

Along with the Spirit of Detroit, Louis’ Fist is probably the most photographed and filmed attraction in the downtown area. It should be a symbol of pride for all Metro Detroiters.

3. Emancipation.



Head south from the fist, deep into Hart Plaza, to the edge of the Detroit River, and you’ll see a piece that symbolizes the start of the black journey in Detroit, the Underground Railroad.

We see what is likely not a family, but parts of several families, looking across the Detroit River to Windsor, to Canada, to freedom, one mile away. On either side of the statue, we see pieces that symbolize all the people who, quietly and anonymously, offered their homes as stations on the Underground Railroad. Today, we know some of their names; at the time, it was gravely important that their names not be known. Downtown Detroit Anonymous

4. Cadillac.



Walk back toward Jefferson and you’ll encounter the man who founded our city on the straits, Antoine Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac. We see Cadillac, back to the river, eyes toward the city, and the names of his traveling party, which are preserved some 300-plus years later for posterity.

While the travelers on the Underground Railroad needed to escape America to get their freedom, for Cadillac, it was the land of opportunity. Both were placed in 2001 in honor of the Detroit 300 celebration.

5. Father Gomidas Vartabed.

Father Gomidas

Father Gomidas

Get back to Jefferson and head west. In the median you will see the statue of Father Gomidas Vartabed, known by some as the father of Armenian music.

The Father Gomidas statue, which went up in 1981, honors a man who gave Armenians great hope, a man who also suffered in the 1915 Armenian genocide committed by the Turks, which would claim some 1.5 million victims. Eventually, Gomidas was allowed to be exiled to France, where he died decades later.

In the course of five statues covering a three-block area of downtown Detroit (wherein none of the statues were placed prior to 1981), public art tells the story of America’s “discovery,” the founding of Detroit, the black struggle for freedom, the Armenian genocide, and Joe Louis, the man who made Detroit the City of Champions.

The Italians honor their hero, the Armenians honor theirs, the French honor theirs, the blacks honor theirs. A few miles up the road on Woodward, at the Detroit Public Library, the Poles honor a hero of theirs, legendary astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus

This land is our land. All of ours. And it has to have a place for all of our stories.

If the only story among these you find invalid or off-putting is that of Joe Louis, it may be time for self-reflection. Specifically: what is it about black people being strong and triumphal — not struggling, not in need of emancipation, but fighting on an even playing field and dominating — that you fear?


Like what you see? Find more of it at Down I-94: A blog about Detroit.