On October 8, 2021, President Joe Biden proclaimed October 11 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. At the same time, he acknowledged Columbus Day as a federal holiday that would continue to recognize the contributions of Italian-Americans. This exercise was, in part, designed to placate a growing constituency in a widening “cancel culture” that opposes a celebration for a man who was nothing short of beastly to the indigenous populations that he and his Spanish patrons conquered and enslaved. Certainly, it would be more appropriate, and more civilized, to celebrate the victims rather than the victors.
It is hard not to agree with that line of thinking, but to do so ignores the genesis of the modern Columbus Day recognition. It is not a celebration of Columbus the man, but rather a celebration of Columbus the Italian, and ultimately the celebration of Italian-Americans.
While the voyage of Columbus to the New World in 1492 was celebrated as early as 1792, the roots of Columbus Day as a holiday and its connection to Italian heritage began in 1890, when David Hennessy, the widely popular police chief of New Orleans, was gunned down on his way home from work. As he lay dying, a passerby asked him who did it, to which he reportedly whispered an ethnic slur for Italians.
Italian immigrants made up a significant portion of the population of New Orleans since before the Louisiana Purchase, and by 1890 the state was home to more than any other southern state, with about 300,000 arriving between 1884 and 1924. This influx of primarily Sicilians not only earned the French Quarter the moniker “Little Palermo;” it also fanned the flames of rampant anti-Italian sentiment, which flared ferociously in the wake of Hennessy’s murder.
Hundreds of Italians were rounded up and nine men were arrested and instantly declared guilty by local newspapers and the public. When a sensational trial ended on March 13, 1891, a series of acquittals and mistrials lit a match in the combustible city. The following day a mob stormed the jail where impassioned speakers whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Hundreds of shots were fired; in short order 11 Italians were dead in the streets, their bodies riddled with bullets. While the Italian government decried the vigilante justice and demanded that the lynch mob be punished, a tide of anti-immigrant sentiment swept the nation. A “New York Times” editorial called the victims “desperate ruffians and murderers. These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins…are to us a pest without mitigations.”
President Benjamin Harrison looked for ways to placate Italian-Americans and ease diplomatic tensions with Italy. In Christopher Columbus, he found an Italian hero and issued a proclamation declaring that year’s 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage a national celebration, to be known as “Columbus Day.”
It would take years of lobbying—primarily through the efforts of the Knights of Columbus—to take the idea of an annual Columbus Day federal holiday from a 1934 congressional statute requesting President Franklin Roosevelt to designate October 12 as a national holiday, to President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of legislation in 1968 creating the federal holiday.
So when we look to cancel Columbus for what our modern sensibilities recognize as unforgivable atrocities, we should be mindful of the true impetus for the Columbus Day holiday which, in reaction to an atrocity committed against them, is the well-deserved celebration of the many contributions to American life provided by the Italian-American community.