Chicago Public School finally took the full step of dropping Columbus Day from its calendar and replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day. No more triffling by calling it both at once. The Board picked a side, in no small measure because students lobbied them hard.
A ever so predictably, Italian American groups have responded with a certain American vitriol, one that bubbles up whenever someone’s Whiteness is vaguely threatened with mildest of slights. Enter Sergio Giangrande, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans:
“The Chicago Board of Education usurped Columbus Day, a holiday sacred to so many groups like us standing here today. We must not forget, Italians were once second-class citizens, and it will not be allowed to happen again.”
It seems bizarre connecting a holiday with becoming first class citizens, but this is part and parcel of the Italian American mythos. The gauzy notion of our past is that Italian immigrants were scorned and despised upon arrival, yet they were able to carve a place for themselves as Americans through persistent hard work and the unbreakable bonds of family, church, and ethnic pride. The fearless, pioneering Columbus has come to symbolize our American parable — to bravely set out westward and succeed due to our brilliance and determination.
If only that were so. Columbus, financed by the brutal King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella just months after they had won a decade’s long war against the Muslims of southern Spain, tortured, maimed, and raped indigenous people as he set up colonial settlements in the pursuit of gold. His actions were so atrocious that Ferdinand and Isabella removed Columbus from his post as colonial governor and had his actions investigated by his successor. He died blind, feverish, and arthritic in Valladolid in the throes of legal action against the Spanish crown for 10% of the profits made from the New World.
How did such a man come to have his own holiday? On March 14, 1891 eleven Italian Americans were lynched in New Orleans. Italian immigrants had been arriving in the United States in large numbers starting in the 1870s, some 4 million in total by 1914. They largely came from the agricultural south of Italy and had faced deep discrimination at home for being “uncivilized” and supposedly tainted with mixed African heritage. These anti-Black notions followed southern Italians to the US, where newspapers trafficked in stereotypes about “guineas” who shared physical traits, social spaces, and menial jobs with African Americans.
Even well before The Godfather, Italians were thought to be criminally minded. When the New Orleans chief of police, David Hennessey, was assassinated in October of 1890, he told his captain that “dagoes” had done it. The mayor announced that he would “teach these people a lesson they will never forget.” Some 250 Italians were rounded up, 45 arrested, and 19 charged with the murder. When the first 9 to be put on trial were either acquitted or given a mistrial, the city exploded with rage. Thousands stormed the jail and murdered 11 Italian men found inside. The mob included a future mayor of New Orleans, Walter Flower, and future Louisiana governor, John Parker.
A grand jury convened to indict memebers of the mob claimed none could be identified. News of the lynching and failure to even make arrests of those responsible deeply disturbed the Italian government, who quickly demanded action from President Benjamin Harrison. To placate the Italians, Harrison paid each of the 11 families roughly $2,200 and declared October 12, 1892 a holiday — the first national Columbus Day.
There would be at least 8 more lynchings of Italians in Louisiana during the 1890s. These experiences did not drive Italians to seek solidarity with the burgeoning African American anti-lynching movement, to work with fearless activists like Ida B Wells and Mary Burnett Talbert. Instead, Italians internalized a basic principle of Americanization — that becoming American means practicing racism. It’s why, at my grandparents’ dinner table, the most vulgar racial slurs could be tossed around casually but a stray “what the hell?” would get you sent to the kitchen.
There is no need for Italian Americans to cling so desperately to Whiteness. The price our ancestors paid to become “first class” citizens is a debt we need to repay. Giving up Columbus Day is minuscule down payment, and taking down the numerous statues to Columbus and other disgusting Italians — like Chicago’s monument to Italo Balbo — are important symbolic gestures. But what we really need to do, as a community, is honestly reckon with role Italian Americans have played in perpetuating racism and anti-Blackness in the United States so that our contributions to American society reflect something greater and far more valuable than our own assimilation.
And if we really do need to replace the Columbus statues with other Italian Americans to physically mark our space in American history, let me suggest we build one to the pacifist and anti-war activist Ralph DiGia. His vision of a peaceful, just, and inclusive world should inspire us all to seek solidarity with those in suffering as we work together towards something greater.