Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

By Neenah Payne

Since the protests starting in 1990 against the proposals to commemorate the Columbus Quintencennial in 1992, there have been growing demands to replace Columbus Day with a day to honor the 500 Native Nations in the Americas, which are like a Big Pink Elephant in the living room ignored by most Americans.

Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day reported in 2021 that over a dozen states replaced “Columbus Day” with “Indigenous Peoples Day”.

Little-known Origins of Columbus Day

However, most Americans may not know the origin of Columbus Day. In 1891, after 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans, President Benjamin Harrison declared “Columbus Day” as a one-time celebration the following year to honor the contributions of Italians and Italian Americans in the United States.

The Lynching That Gave Us Columbus Day describes the hatred for Italians in America and says:

On March 14, 1891, eleven Italians were lynched in New Orleans. It was the largest mass lynching in the American South. It took place the day after nine of the men had been acquitted in the trial of the murder of the New Orleans police chief David Hennessy. (Two of the lynching victims were not on trial for any crime.) Newspapers, after the deed, reported with delight that “a wild mob numbered by the thousands avenge[d] the murder of Chief Hennessy,” informing the public that “the wretched Sicilian band [had been] butchered.

The men were not a “band” of anything. They were working-class immigrants. They were employed as dockworkers, cobblers, fruit vendors, and tinsmiths. One was a laborer on a plantation. They were ordinary immigrants who had arrived in the United States to build a better life for themselves and their families. Salacious newspaper accounts, however, vilified them as monsters worthy of mob violence. Newspaper stories echoed the mainstream belief that Italians were savages. Protestant Americans believed the Italians were natural-born criminals who were more loyal to the Pope than to the United States.

Protestant Americans viewed Italians — olive-skinned immigrants from Italy’s south who fled turmoil after the unification of Italy (the Risorgimento) in 1871 — as worthy of being lynched with impunity as if they were African Americans. It was during this hostile climate that a new word was introduced into American English. It remains associated with Italians and Italian Americans to this day: “Mafia.”

Forty percent of all the people who have been lynched in the United States have not been blacks. This explains the approval the lynching of these European men in New Orleans elicited at that time. This was an era, after all, when a lynching was a public spectacle. Lynchings were often announced beforehand in local newspapers. Advertisements indicated the time and place where the public was invited to attend a rally and to join a mob. In the case of these doomed Italians, one local paper, The Times-Democrat, ran an advertisement on March 14, 1891, that read, in part, “All good citizens are invited to attend a mass meeting . . . to remedy the failure of justice.”

Newspaper editorials encouraged these killings. The Daily States advocated mob action to “remedy” the “failure” of “justice” against the Italians: “Rise, people of New Orleans! Alien hands of oath-bound assassins have set the blot of a martyr’s blood upon your vaunted civilization! Your laws, in the very Temple of Justice, have been bought off, and suborners have caused to be turned loose upon your streets the midnight murderers of David C. Hennessy, in whose premature grave the very majesty of our American law lies buried with his mangled corpse — the corpse of him who in life was the representative, the conservator of your peace and dignity.”

The Italian Consul in New Orleans at the time, Pasquale Corte, was terrified: he well understood the blood of innocents tainted American culture as it forged ahead. He contacted Louisiana Governor Francis Nicholls asking for the intervention of law enforcement to prevent mob violence. Nicholls, who was scheduled to leave office the following spring, declined to take action. He told Corte that it was matter for “New Orleans city government officials.” Corte then contacted New Orleans Mayor Joseph Shakspeare. The mayor, with hours slipping by until the public “invitation” for a mob to assemble and take things into their own hands, did not meet with the Italian diplomat.

Corte was dejected. He had seen this play out before. He knew that the silence of the governor and mayor would be interpreted as permission; the police would stand by and watch without intervening, complicit. Corte was right. The next morning, the “good citizens” responded to the call. Thousands assembled at the statue of Henry Clay in New Orleans near the prison, riled themselves up, and the mob rushed down the streets to lynch the men.

Two days later, on March 16, 1891, the New York Times published an editorial: “The New Orleans Affair.” The northern newspaper approved: “Nor can there be any doubt that the mob’s victims were desperate ruffians and murderers. These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they. Our own murderers are men of feeling and nobility compared to them. These men of the Mafia killed Chief Hennessy. . . . Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans to stay the issue of a new license to continue its bloody practices.”

To Corte, this was the final outrage: Italy had to respond. His patience for the lawless nature of American society had run out. Italy, on his recommendation, demanded the U.S. arrest and prosecute the mob leaders and provide compensation to the victims’ families. The administration of Benjamin Harrison refused. This was a domestic matter and had nothing to do with Italy, the White House explained. The Italian government withdrew its ambassador to Washington, D.C., in protest. The U.S. then withdrew its diplomatic representatives in Rome.

Harrison, however, was troubled by the incident. He wanted to be remembered for rehabilitating U.S. foreign policy — especially after both the Mexican-American and Civil wars had tarnished American prestige in the world. The United States was seen as an aggressor, invading a neighbor. It was held in contempt, a nation of untamed people who had engaged in fratricide over slavery. Harrison was a man noted for his personal integrity and sense of decency, considering this was a time of scandal and unscrupulous Robber Barons and corrupt politicians. He knew that the lynching in New Orleans was morally wrong. He knew Italians faced bigotry and institutionalized discrimination. He knew they faced mob violence throughout the land. He wanted to make things right — and in the process show the world a different side of America.

He settled on two courses of action. First, he agreed to pay each family of the lynched Italians $25,000, a substantial sum in 1891. Then he did something remarkable: he decided to use the office of the president to acknowledge the contributions of Italians and Italian Americans to the United States. An American president, for the first time, would affirm officially the rightful place of Italians in the fabric of American life, turning a new page in how Protestant America saw Catholic immigrants. No longer, he wanted to make clear, could the racist editors at the New York Times approve of the lynching of anyone anywhere in the United States without rebuke.

But how could this second objective be accomplished? He realized nothing would affirm the place of Italians better than a Presidential Proclamation to honor a prominent Italian whose contributions were unquestioned. But who would that be? His staff compiled a list of notable Italians: Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Christopher Columbus, Galileo Galilei, Marco Polo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Amerigo Vespucci, among other luminaries. Harrison decided on Christopher Columbus.

Why Columbus? Look at the calendar. The year was 1892. That marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the islands that today comprise the Bahamas. What a fortuitous coincidence for Columbus! When Italian officials were informed of this extraordinary mea culpa from the United States, they were elated. Italy, following in the steps of France after the Civil War, announced it would give the United States a statue of Christopher Columbus to be delivered to New York for this celebratory occasion.

Italian Americans were overwhelmed. In New York, they assembled at the southwest entrance of Central Park, at the intersection of Eight Avenue, Central Park West, Broadway, and 59th Street (Central Park South) to hold rallies. This intersection was then known as “The Circle.” City officials announced that it would be renamed Columbus Circle, the place where the statue of Christopher Columbus would be placed for all time once it arrived.

This is how the New York Herald reported the unveiling of the statue on October 13, 1892: “Italians, the countrymen and descendants of Columbus, gave yesterday to the metropolis of that New World which he discovered his statue crowning a graceful and enduring monument to his memory. A vast multitude filled all the space in the great circle at Eighth avenue and Fifty-ninth street — a multitude typical in its cosmopolitan nature of the great city, and a young girl, the American daughter of Italian born parents, drew the cords that revealed the glorious work of art and sealed a new bond of friendship between the land of her ancestors and the land of her birth.”

It would have been a thrill to be in New York that day.

President Harrison’s intention was for “Columbus Day” to be a one-time holiday. There was popular acclamation for an annual observance, however. That’s why it became a national holiday: Columbus Day as a bold affirmation of the dignity of Italian identity in the United States. Over the almost thirteen decades that it has been observed, it has evolved into an expression of Italian American pride and has, really, very little to do with the man who sailed the ocean blue.

How Italians Became “White”

In 2021, the two Africans and one European shown here won the NYC Marathon. Can you guess to the two Europeans are and who the African is? Mohamed El Aaraby on the left is from Morocco in North Africa. Albert Korir, the first-place winner in the middle is from Kenya and Eyob Faniel on the right is from Italy. Italians were often referred to by the slur “Guineas” because many Southern Italians look like north Africans – like people from Guinea.

The New York Times explained on October 11, 2019 in How Italians Became ‘White’:

As the historian Matthew Frye Jacobson shows in his immigrant history “Whiteness of a Different Color,” the surge of newcomers engendered a national panic and led Americans to adopt a more restrictive, politicized view of how whiteness was to be allocated. Journalists, politicians, social scientists and immigration officials embraced the habit, separating ostensibly white Europeans into “races.”

Some were designated “whiter” — and more worthy of citizenship — than others, while some were ranked as too close to blackness to be socially redeemable. The story of how Italian immigrants went from racialized pariah status in the 19th century to white Americans in good standing in the 20th offers a window onto the alchemy through which race is constructed in the United States, and how racial hierarchies can sometimes change.

Darker skinned southern Italians endured the penalties of blackness on both sides of the Atlantic. In Italy, Northerners had long held that Southerners — particularly Sicilians — were an “uncivilized” and racially inferior people, too obviously African to be part of Europe.  Racist dogma about Southern Italians found fertile soil in the United States.

As the historian Jennifer Guglielmo writes, the newcomers encountered waves of books, magazines and newspapers that “bombarded Americans with images of Italians as racially suspect.” They were sometimes shut out of schools, movie houses and labor unions, or consigned to church pews set aside for black people.

They were described in the press as “swarthy,” “kinky haired” members of a criminal race and derided in the streets with epithets like “dago,” “guinea” — a term of derision applied to enslaved Africans and their descendants — and more familiarly racist insults like “white nigger” and “nigger wop.”

Mulberry Street in the Little Italy
section of New York around 1900. Library of Congress

The penalties of blackness went well beyond name-calling in the apartheid South. Italians who had come to the country as “free white persons” were often marked as black because they accepted “black” jobs in the Louisiana sugar fields or because they chose to live among African-Americans. This left them vulnerable to marauding mobs like the ones that hanged, shot, dismembered or burned alive thousands of black men, women and children across the South.

The federal holiday honoring the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus — celebrated on Monday — was central to the process through which Italian-Americans were fully ratified as white during the 20th century. The rationale for the holiday was steeped in myth, and allowed Italian-Americans to write a laudatory portrait of themselves into the civic record.

Few who march in Columbus Day parades or recount the tale of Columbus’s voyage from Europe to the New World are aware of how the holiday came about or that President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed it as a one-time national celebration in 1892 — in the wake of a bloody New Orleans lynching that took the lives of 11 Italian immigrants.

The proclamation was part of a broader attempt to quiet outrage among Italian-Americans, and a diplomatic blowup over the murders that brought Italy and the United States to the brink of war.

Historians have recently showed that America’s dishonorable response to this barbaric event was partly conditioned by racist stereotypes about Italians promulgated in Northern newspapers like The Times. A striking analysis by Charles Seguin, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, and Sabrina Nardin, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, shows that the protests lodged by the Italian government inspired something that had failed to coalesce around the brave African-American newspaper editor and anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells — a broad anti-lynching effort.

The article concludes:

The Italian-Americans who labored in the campaign that overturned racist immigration restrictions in 1965 used the romantic fictions built up around Columbus to political advantage. This shows yet again how racial categories that people mistakenly view as matters of biology grow out of highly politicized myth making.

How Did Jews Become White Folks? explains that Jews went through a similar whitening process.

Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness explains how the Irish became “White”.

Swarthy Germans shows Benjamin Franklin’s views on “Whiteness”.

Columbus Day: Cultural Erasure of Italian Americans

How Columbus Day contributes to the cultural erasure of Italian Americans pointed out on October 11, 2021:

Every October, a parade of opinion writers, politicians and Americans of Italian descent celebrate Christopher Columbus as someone who represents Italian Americans.  But associating impoverished 19th- and 20th-century Italian immigrants with a 15th-century explorer disavows the cultural identities of Italian Americans.

It renders the diverse histories and hardships of such immigrants insignificant in favor of a representative of European imperialism already familiar to Americans and more consistent with America’s homogenized European ideal. As a political philosopher, I think it’s worth examining how mythologies of the past can distort reality and erase indigenous and immigrant cultures. Given Italian history, descendants of Italian immigrants have reason to stand in solidarity with indigenous groups as they reclaim histories that were previously expunged.

Amid racist theories marking the period, President Harrison’s proclamation signaled distinctions between glorious European figures, like Columbus, and destitute Sicilians, whose appearance was unwelcome and whose lynchings were met with approval in the press.

In a 1924 letter to The New York Times defending immigration restrictions against Italians and other Southern Europeans, the eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn took care to exclude the so-called discoverer of America from the tainted races: “Columbus from his portraits and his busts, whether authentic or not, was clearly Nordic.”

Columbus died long before the unification of Italy in the 19th century, but he came to be its mythologized representative. With unification, Italy’s rulers attempted to forge a new national identity among disparate peoples, with different experiences of brutal colonialism.

By the 19th century, Southern Italians were leaving Italy in large numbers to escape the entrenched poverty wrought by political and economic subjugation.  That subjugation traces in part to Columbus’ sponsors, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand II, who possessed Sicily during Columbus’ lifetime, with Ferdinand’s cousin, Ferdinand I, controlling the southern mainland. Eventually, Ferdinand II controlled both “Kingdoms of Sicily.”

These so-called Catholic Monarchs of what is now Spain brought the Inquisition to Sicily. In the context of the long-standing cultural diversity of Sicily, the Spanish Inquisition imposed a Catholic monoculture, while literacy and other markers for social welfare plummeted.

As the historians Louis Mendola and Jacqueline Alio write of this time:  “Compared to what she had been under the Byzantines, Fatmids, and Normans, Sicily was now in decline. Illiteracy became endemic, defining the educational level of the great majority of Sicilians – and indeed Italians generally – into the nineteenth century.”

As a Spanish possession, Southern Italy was culturally throttled by the Inquisition while simultaneously exploited for natural resources and taxation. The corruption, poverty and misery that prompted waves of Southern Italians to seek escape between 1880 and 1924 has its roots in this period.

Reclaiming history

As such, a significant majority of Italian Americans descend from those Southern Italian immigrants.  The feudalistic cycles of poverty from which they sought escape were maintained and enforced by the same monarchical, imperialist powers Columbus served and helped enrich.

Identifying Italian Americans with Columbus in America meant identification of Italians more generally with Columbus, rather than with the waves of disadvantaged Southern Italians leaving Italy. Because of this, the identification served as propaganda for both the U.S. and a newly formed Italy.  By rejecting their own association with Columbus, contemporary descendants of Italian immigrants have an opportunity to recognize the authentic cultural identities of their ancestors.

Cabrini Day Instead of Columbus Day

Letter to the Editor: The Origins of Columbus Day points out:

Italian Americans still suffer bigotry in the United States. The demonstrators attacking Christopher Columbus statues last year and falsely assuming the statues were erected in approval of the excesses by colonial European powers against the indigenous peoples of this country is in itself an act of bigotry against Italian Americans. This was the reason New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, an Italian American, strongly rejected calls to take down the monument at Columbus Circle in New York City last year.

I also want to add my own personal experiences growing up in the fifties and sixties where my family and many other Italian families and friends I knew were discriminated against and often times faced various forms of bigotry. I don’t have a problem with the proposal to have a special holiday to recognize Native Americans and I support that. However, the true meaning of Columbus Day will be lost forever if we do not find a way to recognize the plight of Italian Americans.

Colorado approached the issue in an admirable way: Cabrini Day replaced Columbus Day. Frances Xavier Cabrini, known as Mother Cabrini, was an Italian nun sent to the United States to help Italians struggling in their adopted land. Indeed, hatred for Italians was such that Pope Leo XIII found it necessary to send them a woman who would become a saint. Mother Cabrini is credited with performing miracles in her work to mitigate bigotry against Italians and all immigrants in this country. Pope Pius XII canonized her on July 7, 1946.

The Town Meeting article to eliminate Columbus Day in Bedford and rename it should include recognition for the plight of all the Italian American immigrants who were victims of bigotry, discrimination, and violence by amending the article to include Cabrini Day in the language.”

The Innocent 11 and the Creation of Columbus Day

President Biden Commemorates Indigenous Peoples’ Day

In The first Columbus Day was born of violence — and political calculation, the Washington Post reported on October 12, 2021:

Columbus Day has come under fire in recent years by critics alleging that Columbus was responsible for the enslavement and massacre of Indigenous peoples. Some cities, including Columbus, Ohio, have pulled down statues of the explorer. And President Biden made history Friday by announcing he would commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day alongside the Columbus holiday.”

Biden becomes first president to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Here are the indigenous people Christopher Columbus and his men could not annihilate

Christopher Columbus and the potato that changed the world

How Columbus Sailed Into U.S. History, Thanks To Italians reports:

Whatever you think of Columbus Day, most people would probably agree with this writer for The Star Ledger, who recently noted that “if there’s a more embattled holiday on the calendar than Columbus Day, I’d be hard pressed to find it.” 

Though he sailed in 1492, Christopher Columbus was not widely known among Americans until the mid-1700s.

“While we applaud President Biden’s proclamation of October 11 last year as Indigenous Peoples’ Day we must demand a permanent change to this day each year.

Columbus Day was signed into law in 1934 to honor a man who was no hero. Columbus Day must be abolished and replaced with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on a National level permanently. Here’s why:

  • Columbus did not discover America, the Indigenous tribes inhabited these shores before Columbus and other explorers who preceded him.
  • Columbus landed in what he thought was the East Indies and mistakenly called the inhabitants ‘Indians’.
  • In his own journals, Columbus cites how easily Native people could be enslaved and exploited — and he quickly proceeded to do so.
  • Columbus opened the door to many ills that forever harmed the tribes, including a mass migration of settlers into the ‘new world’, massacres, policies of genocide, the introduction of diseases, killing millions of Indigenous people to take their homelands, and disrupting a centuries-old way of life — all in the name of God and manifest destiny.
  • Columbus also opened the door to more than 500 treaties made and broken by the U.S., millions of acres of reservation lands allotted and then taken back, and the creation of the hardships and realities we see on the reservations today.
  • Indigenous peoples have made countless contributions to western agriculture, the environment, the U.S. military, and even the U.S. Constitution — this is true and worthy of celebration.

Columbus Day should be immediately revoked as a Federal holiday and replaced with a National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This moves us closer to a true U.S. history and acknowledging the wrongs done to the tribes.

Sign this petition, in support of H. R. 5473 and S. 2919 before the 117th Congress, to be shared with Speaker Of The House.

Share this movement to help us get 10,000 signatures by October 13th.

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze

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