The groundbreaking ceremony at Columbus Square started out as the kind of event that takes place all the time in Philadelphia — a few shiny shovels stuck in a pile of dirt, the people who worked on the project sharing congratulations.

But this one played out differently Monday in a green pocket of South Philadelphia, where Native American-rights activists declared that the park’s namesake explorer was a killer and slaver who deserves no honor.

City Councilman Mark Squilla was wrapping up his remarks when a group of demonstrators stepped forward, blocking him with a banner that said the park’s planned $2.5 million renovation was nothing to celebrate.

“Columbus didn’t discover the Americas,” read the sign. “He invaded it.”

Moving to the side, Squilla continued speaking to his audience of about 40. The demonstrators moved the sign. Neighbors who had long rooted for a park makeover jumped up and tried to put themselves in front of the banner as news cameras clicked. The students from nearby Christopher Columbus Charter School seemed confused by all the fuss.

“Some of the adults were upset we had interrupted their event for three minutes, but our lives have been interrupted for 500 years,” said demonstrator Felicia Teter, of Yakama descent. A park named for Christopher Columbus, she said, is “a celebration of genocide.”

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson Alain Joinville said the groundbreaking at 12th and Wharton Streets was meant to celebrate the coming of needed improvements to the park, not to honor the man whose name it bears.

Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, right, walks around the shovels at the groundbreaking ceremony. Neighborhood residents and school children took part, as demonstrators protested the honoring of Columbus.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, right, walks around the shovels at the groundbreaking ceremony. Neighborhood residents and school children took part, as demonstrators protested the honoring of Columbus.

The protest, called “Stop Honoring Columbus in Our City, in Our Name," took place as the Italian explorer undergoes a larger reevaluation. In many quarters he’s no longer the hero who, as the school rhyme goes, sailed the ocean blue in 1492, discovering America and opening a new world to settlement.

Historians say Columbus never actually set foot on the mainland of North America. His diaries and letters, and those of men in his expeditions, describe how he seized land, enslaved natives to dig for gold, cut off hands and heads, sold girls as young as 9 as sex slaves, and rewarded his men with females to rape.

Across the country, cities are grappling with the complications of recognizing Columbus. During the last 20 years, dozens of cities, municipalities, and states — most recently Vermont, Maine, and New Mexico — have dropped the October holiday named for him, choosing instead to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day.

At the same time, the nation is embroiled in contentious debate over who deserves to be honored in American society, as Confederate monuments come down and colleges rename campus buildings christened for people with ties to white supremacy.

An uproar ensued in Philadelphia last month when the Flyers removed the statue of long-time good-luck charm Kate Smith after learning that the singer recorded two racist songs in the 1930s. The Center City statue of polarizing former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo continues to provoke argument.

In a city where Italian heritage runs deep, Columbus is celebrated with an annual holiday parade and two prominent memorials.

A marble figure of the navigator — his right hand on a globe, a ship’s anchor at his feet — stands in Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia. It was moved there from Memorial Hall in 1982 after first being erected in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition.

The other monument is at Penn’s Landing, a 125-foot obelisk raised in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage. City Council renamed part of Delaware Avenue as Christopher Columbus Boulevard the same year.

Council sought to create a kind of parity in 2011, when it declared the first Saturday of October to be Indigenous Peoples Day, though the resolution has generally been ignored.

The groundbreaking took place at what was originally called Passyunk Square. In the 1950s, the park was renamed Columbus Square to recognize the area’s Italian community, according to the Parks and Recreation Department.

“It’s all right,” Squilla said as the protest commenced, “people have a right to demonstrate.”

Squilla later said he would not support renaming the park, that it was a mistake to constantly reevaluate earlier generations by modern standards. He would, he said, be open to the addition of a biographical marker or plaque to fully acknowledge Columbus’ actions.

A protester who gave her name only as P.B. said that to continue to honor Columbus "does a disservice to Philadelphia.” Others suggested that the park be named for a different Italian American, or for the Lenape people who lived in the region.

Today, Native Americans number about 7,000 in the city, less than 1 percent of the population — a result of original tribes being killed or forced to flee Pennsylvania. Italian immigrants arrived in droves at the turn of the 20th century. Today 111,952 city residents claim Italian heritage, about 7 percent of the population.

Demonstrators wore red, the color of a movement centered on missing and murdered indigenous women — spread across social media as #MMIW — that seeks justice for the possibly thousands who have been killed, trafficked or gone missing in the United States and Canada. Sunday marked the national day of awareness of them.

Monday’s protest also recognized black women who have been victims of violence, and others who were forcibly brought to this country in the African diaspora.

No one made a move to oust or silence the demonstrators.

“We are fully respectful of First Amendment rights," Parks and Recreation Department Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said at the groundbreaking, "and welcome our guests.”