A lesser known history of Columbus Day


Many question whether Christopher Columbus truly represents Italian Americans, their history and community. Christopher Columbus illustration from Grand voyages (1596) by Theodor de Bry


As another Columbus Day has come and gone, we are once again met with a national discussion about the merit of the holiday and the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. It is no secret that the arrival of Columbus wreaked havoc on Indigenous communities, with the effects of colonialism still felt today. However, a much lesser known story is that of how Columbus Day came to be, and its impact on another ethnic community: Italian Americans. 
Fleeing extreme poverty in the south of their homeland, more than 4 million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924. Over a million of those immigrants were Sicilians, an already outcast group in Europe. Even within Italy, northerners looked down upon their islander brothers, viewing them as dirty and as criminals. Upon arrival in the United States, the treatment was no better, with Sicilians occupying the lowest paid jobs, and often being shut out of schools and public places. Their culture was foreign, their appearance of the Mediterranean, and they presented a threat to the image of a pure American society envisioned by the founding fathers. 
In 1891, the prejudice escalated, culminating in the New Orleans lynching. After police chief David Hennessy was assassinated in the fall of 1890, 19 Sicilians were charged in relation to his murder—which had been labeled an act of Mafia violence—including a 14 year old boy accused of blowing a whistle to warn of oncoming police. Due to weak evidence, many of the accused were ultimately acquitted of their crimes. But William Parkerson, the former campaign manager of the then New Orleans mayor, disagreed with the court’s decision. He believed that it was the people’s duty to intervene when the courts had failed, and so he gathered a mob and marched to the jail where the Sicilians were still being detained. The mob shot nine of the detainees, before dragging two more into the street where they were hanged. 
In the aftermath of the New Orleans lynching, the response from the public was as brutal as the murders themselves. The New York Times published an editorial titled “Chief Hennessy Avenged,” condoning the lynching of these “descendants of bandits and assassins.” Theodore Roosevelt, who was not yet president, called the incident and subsequent lynchings “a rather good thing.” At the same time, Italy and the United States were on the brink of war, with the US being forced to take some sort of action amidst the discrimination faced by Italians in America. 
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued what could be considered a response to Italy’s demands: a proclamation establishing a celebration of Columbus Day. While it appears to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, it was an opportunity for Italians to “write themselves into the American origin story.” The politicization of whiteness in America meant that assimilation depended on proximity to Anglo-Protestants. By associating themselves with Columbus, a supposed American hero, Italians became white in ways that their culture and appearance otherwise wouldn’t have allowed for. 
When there is talk of abolishing Columbus Day, Italian Americans immediately become defensive. Certainly there is an element of generational trauma that exists, an attachment to Columbus out of fear that their acceptance—their whiteness—would disappear, replaced by the violence they had overcome. Today I believe that there is also a fear of being forgotten. When the statues have been torn down and the day replaced, who will be left to remember the story of Italian Americans? It feels, for many, like a public erasure. 
But in reflecting upon the legacy of Columbus Day and the future of the celebration, we must take into consideration the time that has passed. One hundred years later, does Columbus truly represent Italian Americans, their history and community? He was a Northerner from Genoa, who sailed for Spain and imparted neither Italian culture nor language on the Americas. All things considered, he is far removed from the South Italians who immigrated to the United States centuries later. 
Furthermore, are we not now aware of the true story of Columbus, the genocide and destruction left in the wake of his voyage? The lies surrounding Columbus may have facilitated Italian assimilation into American society, but our value is not derived from Columbus, nor from the approval of Anglo-Protestant Americans. To continue to reduce ourselves to the legacy of Columbus is to continue to seek validation, and in many ways to continue to hold ourselves back. 
I think that there is a great deal of collective healing that must occur within the Italian American community for real growth to occur. There are feelings, past traumas, and problematic mindsets that must be confronted. And while it is important to remember history, it is also important to be objective, and to think for ourselves moving forward. I would like to see greater awareness surrounding the history of Italians in America, and the contributions that were made by the community. But I would also like to see Italian Americans take control of their narrative and celebrate a day for themselves, not through Columbus.