Origins of Columbus Day
Columbus Day was proclaimed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 in direct response to the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants (known as the “Crescent City” hangings) falsely accused of murdering the chief of police in New Orleans and found innocent by a jury of their peers. Instead, an angry mob, stoked by anti-immigrant rage, stormed the jail where they were being held, and murdered them in cold blood. It was considered to be the largest lynching in American history.
The current movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day never mentions the American dreams lost to those who were lynched — Antonio Bagnetto, James Caruso, Loreto Comitis, Rocco Geraci, Joseph Macheca, Antonio Marchesi, Pietro Monasterio, Emmanuele Polizzi, Frank Romero, Antonio Scaffidi, and Charles Traina.
Although from Italy, like other immigrants they were not men of fortune. Among them were a fruit peddler, rice plantation laborer, stevedore and cobbler, but their lives held the same promise as every immigrant that arrives on American shores.
In their last moments, they must have been celebrating. A jury of their peers had already acquitted six in their ranks. It was almost certain that they all would soon be free. Justice had prevailed. “God Bless America!”
Sadly, what might have been their American story will never be realized. At the time, anti-immigrant prejudice was so high that many newspapers ran editorials supporting the murderous mob over the innocent men who were lynched. The magnitude of this discrimination is described in more detail by Kathleen Brush, in an article referenced as "Italian American Discrimination and Ron DeSantis" in the “Latest News” section of this website. Now, there is more embarrassing discrimination. The national holiday in response to the "Crescent City" hangings is under attack.
In a strange twist, the initial holiday itself was named after Christopher Columbus not to honor him, but simply by coincidence. He was chosen as a symbol. The year 1892 happened to be the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas. Columbus was a benign placeholder, an acceptable symbol and, in view of the rampant immigrant bias, perhaps a person the general public would accept. He had been dead for almost 400 years, and the respect for him was well established. His name ultimately became embedded in the District of Columbia, Columbus Ohio, Columbia University and many other places.
In 1934, in response to a Congressional statute, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation establishing Columbus Day as a federal holiday effective in 1971. The holiday was officially designated to be celebrated on the second Monday in October and remains a federal holiday, proclaimed by all succeeding by U.S. Presidents.
Evolution of Columbus Day
Like most immigrants, over time the Italian Americans worked hard and educated their children with the goal of achieving the American Dream. They joined the American melting pot, became grateful citizens, and transformed the holiday into a day to thank this great nation for accepting their immigrant ancestors.
More broadly, Columbus Day has also become the only holiday to recognize the contributions of the broad range of immigrants and their descendants in our nation toward the ideals and progress of America. From a wider viewpoint, the voyages of Columbus opened the doors to immigrants from all nations. As a result the Columbus Day holiday shines a light on the promise of our nation of immigrants and not on the darkness of racism which many faced when coming to our shores.
Who would have anticipated that the choice of Columbus’s name would come back to haunt the holiday and result in discrimination, which was what the holiday was established to prevent. In 1992, exactly 100 years after its enactment, a protest in Berkeley, California disrupted the reenactment of Columbus’s voyage under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Since that time, based on a distortion of the life of Christopher Columbus (see the Christopher Columbus section) protests have continued to spread.
The “Crescent City” hangings of Italian immigrants was a shameful mark in our nation’s history and cannot be forgotten. More ironically, as mentioned above, the holiday created in response to this heinous event is now in jeopardy of being cancelled and replaced by indigenous people day. The effort is led by a rather small but highly vocal misinformed group of opponents, including representatives of various indigenous tribes who also do not want to be forgotten.
The result is the opposite of the goals of these opponents. Deleting Columbus Day is a form of racism and discrimination, not only against Italian Americans, but all immigrants and their descendants.
This kind of discrimination is not new. From the late 19th century to the early 20th century an anti-immigrant attitude was expounded by many politicians and others in power in America.
Renewed Immigrant Discrimination
As a pitiful example of the anti-immigrant attitude, in 1920, based on the new science of “eugenics”, there was an attempt to stem the tide of immigrants from nationalities that were considered having “inferior genes”. Our politicians in Washington D.C. used eugenicists (those who study human genes) as the basis for passing an act known as the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 designed to improve the genetic composition of Americans.
This clearly discriminatory Act considered Italians and other immigrant groups to have inferior genes. It reduced the annual total number of legal Italian immigrants to less than 6,000. Before this Act was passed, the immigration of Italians in the early twentieth century (1904-1916) was approx. 200,000 each year. The Act applied the same discriminatory quotas to other groups like the Jewish people, Asians, and other nationalities from Southern Europe and the Middle East who were also considered to be genetically inferior. The quotas under the Act were not abolished until 1965.
Today, Columbus Day is the only federal holiday celebrated by a broad range of American immigrants and their descendants. As an example, the Columbus Day parade in New York City is cheered on by and participated in by thousands of our citizens of every heritage. In reality this treasured holiday is the American immigrant day that rejects racism and discrimination, and should be supported by all Americans.
For new immigrants arriving from war-torn regions in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, to those on our southern borders from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, and Venezuela an anti-immigrant attitude sends a horrible message. To give them a positive experience, we must reassure them that we have learned from the sins of our past. But have we?