Columbus Day will be celebrated in the U.S. on Monday; it is a federal holiday, so schools, banks, and the post office will be closed, but most private sector employees still will have to report to work. It is a controversial holiday, but its history is fascinating.
Although Columbus Day has only been a federal holiday since 1937, various U.S. cities began honoring Columbus almost since our nation was founded. In 1792, New York City celebrated the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation urging Americans to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, and cities large and small did just that. In Syracuse, New York, over 100,000 people (as estimated by one of the daily newspapers) gathered in the downtown area for a parade and lots of flag-waving. The organizers of the parade were leaders of the small Italian-American community, who saw this anniversary as an opportunity to show the rest of the citizens of the area that Italian-Americans were as patriotic as they were. Marchers in the parade included over a dozen bands (including a 15 piece “Indian” band, supposedly made up of residents of the Onondaga Nation as well as a 200 piece Italian Society band) and various school groups. Local politicians used this event to promote ideals of patriotism, and local store windows featured images of not only Columbus but Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.
Italian-Americans were particularly sensitive to criticism levelled at them by native-born Americans. Eager to demonstrate that they could be assimilated into mainstream American culture, leaders of Italian-American communities around America lobbied state and federal lawmakers to make Columbus Day a federal holiday. They also were the chief organizers of annual parades, many of which are still held annually. New York City’s Columbus Day parade is the largest.
But beginning in the late 1970s, various protests have been held at Columbus Day observances. In the early 1980s, demographic historians and social historians began to publish scathing indictments of the European treatment of the Native Americans they encountered in the New World, some of them going so far as to term it “genocide.” Anthropologists and archaelogists also made new discoveries that questioned the wisdom of the use of the phrase “Columbus’s discovery of America.” As Indian tribes in the U.S. regained federal and state recognition of their sovereignty, they demanded more respect for their native cultures.
In 1991, as the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyages neared, 150 protestors shouted “Genocide” at then New York Senator Al D’Amato (who was very proud of his Italian heritage) as he laid a wreath at the base of the Columbus statue in Columbus Circle in downtown Syracuse; the following year, a debate at Syracuse University over the legacy of Columbus turned into a shouting match, and the police had to intervene to avoid its escalation.
As a teacher, I was very careful in the way I approached Columbus and the holiday we use to honor him. It was an opportunity to discuss public perceptions of racism, patriotism, and pride. It was also a chance to talk about how our views of famous men have changed over time. It was always a lively discussion!