Why Columbus Day Happened

Columbus brought about devastation for Native Americans. But the holiday is about more than the man himself—it’s also about the struggle of generations of Italian Americans.

By William J. Connell

Tagged Columbus DayHistoryItalian Americans

As in all recent years, with Columbus Day upon us, the “Columbus Discussion” is now in full swing. And, each year, I like to remind people that some of the first to protest the celebration of this holiday in the United States were Italian Americans. In the 1890s, Italian American anarchists condemned Columbus in their newspapers as “a pirate and an adventurer” and as a man “indifferent to massacre” who set the stage for “the martyrdom of the negroes in the States of the South” and “the prejudices and hatreds of race.”

However, this did not stop many Italian anarchists from celebrating the holiday nonetheless. For example, a community of anarchist miners belonging to the “Cristoforo Colombo Mutual Aid Society” in Spring Valley, Illinois held a parade for the occasion in 1899. The parade marshal happened to be an anarchist named Joe Gariglietti. He dressed up as Columbus, the pirate admiral—waving a sword, mounted on a white horse, and “wearing a Napoleon-style hat.”

For more than a century, elementary school students across the country have enacted plays in which Queen Isabella pledged her jewels to ensure that the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María could sail across the ocean, bringing civilization and Christianity to the benighted peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The scripts for these plays were based on Washington Irving’s Columbus biography, a book that added a number of colorful but fictional elements to the story. Today, however, many of our students stage debates over the propriety of celebrating a holiday named after an undoubtedly courageous and impressive sea captain whose expeditions also brought disease to the New World and whose governorship on land at Hispaniola brought mayhem and misery. The change is jarring to those who grew up with the older model, including, and especially, Italian Americans who, for the better part of a century, have taken pride in celebrating Columbus as “their” hero.

As a professional historian, I think the “Columbus Discussion” is a good thing. It reminds us—and our students—that history is messy. American history, in particular, is continually confronting what might be termed our republic’s two “original sins”—the treatment of indigenous peoples and the institution of slavery. Both are very much present in the biography of Columbus, and the fact that he was an Italian who sailed for Spain and explored the Caribbean hardly pardons European North Americans from following him in committing similar sins. If anything, it confirms that he should be seen as “one of us”—and the first one at that—for better and for worse.

But we have to remember that the American system of holidays is constructed around historical people and historical events, not around saints. On August 15, Americans may happen to go to the shore, but we don’t do it in official celebration of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Like I said, history is messy. And, like many other figures in our history, Columbus was definitely not a saint. But his initiative—which ended up connecting two hemispheres in their most populated regions and in an enduring way—was of absolute importance in shaping the world that we now live in. It is not necessarily a bad thing, and might even be a good thing, to have an occasion in which to have these discussions—to celebrate the good that has come of it, while also pondering the bad, and the extent to which this bad was and wasn’t avoidable.

I think it is, therefore, useful to consider the spirit of Columbus Day in 1892, when Benjamin Harrison, an underrated and too often forgotten one-termer of a President, declared a nationwide celebration of Columbus on the 400th anniversary of his initial voyage. This happened at a time when Italian Americans were near the bottom rung in American society. Just prior, for example, in 1891 in New Orleans, there had been a mass lynching of eleven Italians despite their acquittal in a recent murder trial. The lynching was treated favorably by the New York Times and it was endorsed in a private letter by Theodore Roosevelt, although Harrison thought it a terrible miscarriage of justice.

The President was a strong promoter of public education, and he thought Columbus Day should be celebrated, particularly in schools. He believed that education offered the best chance for turning Americans of all backgrounds into responsible citizens. The point of the Columbus Day celebration of 1892 was not to celebrate a war, or a constitution, but to celebrate our land and its many peoples. In a New York City parade that year, the students of the Dante Alighieri Italian School marched alongside students from the Carlisle Indian School.

Over the years, Italian Americans were able to renew and expand these official Columbus Day festivities, which were already being observed by various societies and organizations well before 1892. Harrison’s one-time event became a regularly observed federal holiday—an achievement that paralleled the broader progress Italian Americans had made in our country.

There remain many reasons why Columbus Day should be a holiday in which Italian Americans play a central and guiding role. But it needs to be more than another “ethnic” celebration, and it would help greatly if there were a return to Harrison’s idea of inclusiveness, with a recognition that history comprises tragedies (in this case most notably for Native Americans) as well as triumphs. The recognition of past tragedies need not be only mournful, however. They can be saluted in ways that involve humor, joy that the worst is (hopefully) over, and recognition that we are now a stronger people thanks to those who worked so hard to bring us together in this great country.

Here’s a proposal. In New York City, the Columbus Citizens Foundation has done a remarkable job of keeping the Columbus Day Parade both engaging and contemporary from year to year. Imagine if next year the Columbus Day parade in New York City were to also include floats representing Native Americans and their heritage, sponsored by prosperous tribes like the Pequots or Mohegans. Perhaps there could even be a Columbus dressed as a pirate admiral, waving a sword and riding a white horse.

Read more about Columbus DayHistoryItalian Americans

William J. Connell is Professor of History and La Motta Chair in Italian Studies at Seton Hall University. He s co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge History of Italian Americans.

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