The origins of Columbus Day had very little to do about the man Christopher Columbus. It was initiated due to injustice, bigotry, institutionalized discrimination, and mob violence that Italian American immigrants faced back in the late 1800s and it is a day that has evolved into an expression of Italian American pride.
An estimated four million Italians immigrated to the United States from 1880 to 1920, many of them farmers and laborers fleeing poverty. In America, they encountered religious discrimination, difficult working conditions, and a culture of anti-Italianism that viewed them as inferior and associated them with organized crime.
On March 14, 1891, eleven Italians were lynched in New Orleans by an angry mob responding to salacious newspaper accounts, depicting them as criminals worthy of mob violence and accusing them of crimes they were acquitted of. 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. Two of the lynching victims were not on trial for any crime. The victims were working-class immigrants who had come to the United States to build a better life for themselves and their families. It’s important to point out that this was not the only incident where innocent Italian Americans were falsely accused of crimes, imprisoned, and or put to death.
This hostility against these people and the mob lynching in New Orleans came to the attention of then-President Benjamin Harrison.
Harrison was a man noted for his personal integrity and sense of decency. He knew that the lynching in New Orleans was morally wrong. He also knew Italians faced bigotry, institutionalized discrimination, and mob violence throughout the United States and he wanted to rectify this.
He settled on two courses of action. First, he made arrangements for the US Government to pay each family of the slain victims $25,000. He also decided to use the office of the president to acknowledge the contributions of Italians and Italian Americans to the United States.
He realized nothing would affirm the place of Italians better than a Presidential Proclamation to honor a prominent Italian. He considered a list of prominent Italians but chose Christopher Columbus because that year (1892) marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the islands of the Bahamas.
When Italian officials were informed of this, they were elated. Italy announced it would give the United States a statue of Christopher Columbus to be delivered to New York for this celebratory occasion.
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.