Media coverage of the Los Angeles City Council vote Wednesday to remove Columbus Day from the city calendar completely ignores the holiday’s inclusionary history.
“The move to rename the holiday faced fierce opposition from Italian Americans who see Christopher Columbus and his arrival in the Americas as an important part of their culture” wrote Samantha Schmidt of The Washington Post. “Some opponents of the decision encouraged designating a day to honor indigenous and aboriginal peoples, while still observing Columbus Day.”
How quickly we forget history.
“The idea, lost on present-day critics of the holiday, was that this would be a national holiday that would be special for recognizing both Native Americans, who were here before Columbus, and the many immigrants—including Italians—who were just then coming to this country in astounding numbers” writes Dr. William J. Connell, a historian at Seton Hall University.
Among some of the early opponents to celebrating Columbus Day or erecting his statutes is none other than the virulently anti-Catholic, anti-Immigrant Klu Klux Klan. The KKK likened Columbus Day to a papal plot, and burned crosses to threaten those who celebrated Columbus.
The irony that Columbus Day was promulgated as an inclusionary holiday, intended to celebrate recent immigrants and the indigenous peoples that were here before, is too palpable for media outlets to ignore.
“It was to be a national holiday that was not about the Founding Fathers or the Civil War, but about the rest of American history,” writes Dr. Connell.
While many media outlets were reporting on the clash between Italian American groups in L.A. that favor the holiday and American Indian groups that want it replaced, nowhere was the holiday’s original intentions ever mentioned.
“This gesture of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day is a very small step in apologizing and making amends” reads an enlarged and bolded quote by a councilman in an L.A. Times report.
The New York Times mentioned the wave of support for recognizing American Indians on Columbus Day, “paralleling the growing perception that the wave of European settlement in the Western Hemisphere was genocidal to native populations.”
At a time of heightened sensitivity and racial division — with some Confederate statues being removed and Columbus statues being vandalized — the intended message of Columbus Day, when President Benjamin Harrison declared it a national holiday on July 21, 1892, may actually do some good.
“You won’t find it in the public literature surrounding the first Columbus Day in 1892,” Connell writes, “but in the background lay two recent tragedies, one involving Native Americans, the other involving Italian Americans.”
The first, was at Wounded Knee, S.D., in a massacre where U.S. troops killed 146 to 200 Lakota Sioux just before New Years Day in 1890, including men, women and children. The second was the lynching of 11 Italian-Americans in 1891, ten weeks after the Wounded Knee massacre. The lynchings, organized by a prominent Louisiana politician who later become governor, were referred to by Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president at the time, as “a rather good thing.”
I remember these tragedies that occurred so soon before the first Columbus Day holiday, and I shake my head,” Connell writes. “Columbus Day was supposed to recognize the greatness of all of America’s people, but especially Italians and Native Americans.”
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