It’s time for that annual Columbus Day tradition—not parades, but local governments ostentatiously disowning the holiday. The Washington Post reports:
On Thursday, Vermont Gov. Peter Schumlin signed an executive proclamation marking the second Monday of October as Indigenous People’s Day. According to the proclamation, the day is to recognize that the state “was founded and is built upon lands first inhabited by the Indigenous Peoples of this region,” an NBC affiliate reported.
The move came three days days after City Council members in Phoenix voted unanimously to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, the Arizona Republic reported. It won’t replace Columbus Day because Phoenix already doesn’t celebrate that as a city holiday.
“It is important to acknowledge the original people of this land, and that is something that Columbus Day has completely contradicted,” Laura Medina, an Arizona State University student and activist, told the City Council on Monday, according to the Arizona Republic.[..]
Phoenix and Denver join at least 26 other cities across the country that will celebrate Native Americans on Monday, while federal and state governments observe Columbus Day.
Despite what Prof. Medina, Gov. Schumlin, and an increasing number of others imply, the animating spirit behind Columbus Day was not to celebrate the defeat, enslavement, and death of Native Americans. It was to celebrate the success of immigrants.
Specifically, Columbus Day was the Italian-American holiday. In the early 20th century, it was for Italian-Americans what St. Patrick’s Day had been for Irish-Americans since the earlier 19th century and what Cinco de Mayo is for Mexican-Americans today: not just a community celebration, but a public display of pride and of newfound civic clout.
Over four million Italians came to America during the Great Wave of immigration (1880-1924). It’s hard now to imagine just how foreign they were. Most were Sicilian and Southern Italian peasants whose way of life had not changed much in centuries. Their dress, language, and religious habits marked them off as distinctly alien. To most WASP observers, they were not fully white; the U.S. Congress in 1911 classified the Italians, like the Poles and Eastern European Jews who were pouring into the country, as part of a different race than English- and Irish-descended Americans.
Christopher Columbus, with the Anglicized first name and the Latinized surname, can sound almost WASPY, but the explorer was born Christoforo Columbo in Genoa. It was useful for all of the other Columbos—and Polumbos and Campanas and DiBonos—to call public attention to that. At the time, stereotyping was rampant and violence (up to and including one of the largest mass lynchings in American history) not unheard of toward Italian-Americans. But Columbus’ name was respected by all (thanks, in part, to an 1828 Irving Washington hagiography.) So it was hard for others to criticize the idea of “Columbus Day,” and for the Italian-Americans, promoting it in turn promoted positive associations.
But more than that, it sent a strong message about the clout of the new community. Like many other ethnic groups, the Italian-Americans engaged in machine politics. (Although more anomalously, they organized within the Republican, not Democratic Party—the Irish already had too firm a lock on the Democratic machine in the eastern cities where both groups lived.) Organizing parades was a good way to show your numbers and reward loyal supporters. If you had really arrived, then you could use your ethnic groups’ social or political clout to force companies, local governments, or, eventually, the federal government to recognize your national day. This sent a message: we’re here, we’re Italian, get used to it. And oh, by the way, we’re a political force to be reckoned with.
The campaign to have the holiday recognized started locally in the 19th century and culminated with federal recognition in 1937. Columbus Day was made one of the standard federal days off in 1968. But by then, the very success that empowered Italian-Americans to attain this recognition also had made it somewhat moot. After WWII, the sons and daughters of the Great Wave settled the suburbs and often intermarried into other ethnic groups; meanwhile, the machine politics of the Gilded and Progressive Ages had given way to more modern modes of organization under the Blue Model. And as the Great Wave immigrants successfully assimilated, the country became more focused on other social wrongs—Civil Rights for African Americans, women’s empowerment, and, saliently, the historic wrongs and present plight of Native Americans. Out of these two trends came the modern forgetfulness about why Columbus Day exists, combined with the drive to change its name.
Nobody wants to celebrate the series of pandemics, wars, and massacres that were visited upon the Native Americans in the years following 1492. But nobody is doing that now, and on evidence that was never what Columbus Day was about. Those who instituted Columbus Day weren’t trying to celebrate genocide; they were trying to celebrate an immigrant group. (For perspective on the moral as opposed to historical stature of Columbus, see this David Tucker piece in today’s Wall Street Journal.) Right now, we are in the middle of another Great Wave of immigration—and we’re not handling it particularly well. Perhaps we’d be better served taking Columbus Day to reflect on how our ancestors handled the last one, rather than virtue signaling at their expense.