Letter to the Editor: The Origins of Columbus Day

April 28, 2021

Submitted by Joe Piantedosi

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.

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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.

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July 4, 2021 3:52 pm

I don’t understand why the lynching is rarely mentioned? That’s frustrating. Is it because Italians are no longer seen as ethnic? I like the idea of Lady Cabrini. Or even moving it to March 14th, the day of the tragic lynchings. I’m glad that Gov is solid on this issue to not erase a day for Italians, but we know it will eventually be changed by lawmakers. :/

Madelyn Armstrong
May 2, 2021 10:09 am

Very enlightening. Both of these letters and the follow-on comments lead me to suggest the following. Italians – and Irish, Polish, Mexicans, Russian Jews – in fact all immigrants who came to this country looking for opportunity but who were discriminated against, denied jobs, refused housing, etc. should be recognized for why they came here, how they suffered and how much they contributed to the rich fabric that is America – not just Italians. How about changing Columbus Day to Immigrants Day? And I agree there should be a separate Day (or indeed a whole month) designated to celebrate, recognize and learn the real history of Indigenous People/Native Americans.

Cristina Egerman
May 2, 2021 9:35 am

Honestly, growing up in NY and living in NJ/NY for a good part of my life I am fully aware of the history of Christopher Columbus. However, I do not feel the need to keep this holiday around. For starters all immigrants in this country have been treated poorly when they migrated… Irish, Italians, Russians, Hispanics, etc. Even Italian American community themselves treated other immigrants who migrated to the United States the same way they were treated. Why should we celebrate just one specific community that suffered injustice, bigotry, etc. and not all? I do not feel the need to tear down statutes as others do since it is a part of history . However, why can’t we celebrate all of the different immigrants that have come to the United States that have suffered at the hands of racist Americans? Why are we only focused on one group?

I know we have National Immigrant’s Day on October 28th… but very few know this and it is not even acknowledge in schools. I personally believe they should have replaced Columbus Day with Immigrants Day since all immigrants have suffered like the Italians and current immigrants still suffer during this day and age.

Robert Marshall
May 1, 2021 4:29 pm

The Quotation below was not so long ago. People have short memories.
Martin Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

First we had Hope & Change, now we have Divide and Conquer.

Lucille Wilson
April 29, 2021 10:18 pm

I think indigenous day should be celebrated on a different day, instead of replacing Columbus Day. Then there could be two days of celebration.

Angelo Colao
April 29, 2021 4:45 pm

I support Mr. Piantidosi’s request. I grew up in New York City (Bronx) and was subject to anti-Italian events. Fortunately I grew up in mixed area and had many pleasant experiences with kids of different ethnic backgrounds, but outside my city block area it was different on the street and in school.

April 29, 2021 2:46 pm

There is NOTHING admirable about Colorado replacing Columbus Day with Cabrini Day- they still replaced Columbus Day which was their objective and were blatant about it, which is a form of saying “your ancestors were wrong”. If that is how you want to defend your grand-grandparents, well…

Your ancestors were right to begin with, unless you want to let them be portrayed as different.

Patty Carluccio
April 29, 2021 1:47 pm

Thank you for sharing the history of Columbus Day. I feel remembering the actual history is important before deciding about what to do about the name of the holiday. While I am wholeheartedly in favor of highlighting the culture of Indigenous People, I am not in favor of changing the name to Indigenous People’s Day. I am in favor of changing the name to Cabrini Day (or something like this) which feel more positive to me and teaching all of us more about the plight of Immigrants during this time so that we all remember our history so as to hopefully never repeat it.
I am also in favor of doing more to highlight the history of Indigenous People. Growing up my brother’s best friend’s family was of Iroquois heritage. My brother and I spent a lot of time with this friend.
The Indigenous People of North America have a rich history and traditions and I would be more in favor of creating something like Indigenous People’s Week or Month (similar to Black History Month) to allow for more recognition of the history.
While I do feel that those wanting to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day have good intentions, this specific change sends negative feelings to me. I married into an Italian family and have many, many Italian friends. Canceling recognition of the Italian history in America feels unkind to me and I am sure that that is not the intent.
I would love to see more dialogue about what Bedford, as a community can do to provide more education about the history of Indigenous People instead of just changing the name of an existing holiday which, in turn, will likely cause negative feelings in the Italian-American community.
I hope Bedford residents will truly consider this and come up with a way to honor the good intentions of this proposed change without increasing divisions.

Karen Moore
April 29, 2021 12:52 pm

Thank you Joe for a wonderful article on the true meaning of Columbus Day. Columbus Day has remained in good standing with our country for almost 500 years. It wasn’t until the last few years, that it has now become a political issue. While I too believe that there should be a special holiday for Native Americans, I do not agree that it should replace Columbus Day. I also grew up in the 60s as an Italian American and am proud of my heritage, despite years of discrimination and bigotry. If that is what it takes for all to agree, then I too second the idea to have Cabrini Day replace Columbus Day.

Samantha McCarthy
April 29, 2021 10:30 am

Thank you for this. I did not know the history behind it. I am half Italian and was often asked in my family was in the mafia when I was younger.
I really like your suggestion of Cabrini Day. However, I think this will fall in deaf ears given the current political stance of Bedford as a whole. Cancel culture is in full effect. But I sincerely hope this is not the case.

Carmelina DAlleva
April 29, 2021 8:36 am

The country and the town of Bedford are at the crucial moment of executing their political and moral responsibility to preserve the overall society general welfare with respect, fairness, accountability, and courage. The statue of Columbus and the commemoration of the day merely represents the many important contributions the Italians have made to our nation, from William Paca and Ceaser Rodney, whose signature rests on the U.S. Constitution, to all the others that have made substantial contributions to the American way of life in terms of the arts, theater, music, science, education, explorations, business, politics, food, etc..

b. Columbus four voyages landed him strictly in the Caribbean, including the Bahamas, Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Jamaica, and in his latter two voyages traveled to the coasts of eastern Central America and northern South America. BUT Columbus never reached the soil of the USA. His quest was to prove the world is round and find an alternate route to China.

c. YES, indeed, he untimely contributed to the innovations of navigation which a whole century later resulted with many other individuals setting foot on the US soil and eventually creating this experiment of governance by a Democracy. The founding of America has granted a refuge and a “Heaven” to numerous human beings that were being oppressed in their own land and are now ancestors of the many current US citizens of diverse nationalities. Hence Columbus could be considered the original Founding Father of the US.

d. The four transatlantic voyages of Columbus took place on:

1492–93; 1493–96; 1498–1500; and 1502–04 .
The first English settlement in America was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 , a whole century after the explorer’s four voyages. Columbus was also a very virtuous and religious man who later in life actually became a Franciscan friar. More information about this can be found in the book “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem” by Carol Delaney.

e. To blame Columbus for America’s slave trade or for the demise of the Native American Indians is comparable to blaming John Glenn, being the first American to orbit the earth, for any future conflicts that may arise in regard to space. In addition, the “Cancel Culture” is most definitely overreaching its intend to correct history. The recorded collection of past historical events provides numerous examples of certain idealism taking hold and incorrectly and unjustly carried out to the extreme. The defacing and the removal of Columbus from history is another mission of those misguided intends that are currently being carried out.

The support of the Town Meeting Representatives to keep the COLUMBUS DAY commemoration as it is and NOT BE REPLACED  by Cabrini Day or any other Italian name is very much needed and very important in order to avoid rewriting history for the sole purpose of rewriting history.  We can keep the day as it was intended by President Benjamin Harrison to honor the Italian heritage via Columbus and indeed also  find a way to appropriately extend the same goodwill  to the Native Americans with their own special holiday.  Doing so, it will keep the heritage of both as indented, relevant and alive within the vibrant and rich fabric of America, which encompasses and represents a multitude of diversities and nationalities!  Having a vote against Columbus Day is an unjust vote and a vote against the ancestors of all nationalities as well as the ones of the Italian. 

Robert Kalantari
April 29, 2021 7:50 am

Thank you Joe, very educational article. I am sure most people are not aware of the main purpose of the Columbus Day celebration. While I fully support the proposal to have a special holiday to recognize Native Americans, however, as you mentioned in your article the true meaning of Columbus Day will be lost forever if we do not find a way to recognize the plight of Italian Americans. Your suggestion amending this article to include Cabrini Day in the language is an excellent way to address this issue for both causes.

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