1891, New Orleans, 11 Italian-Americans die in the single largest mass lynching in American history. Their killers? “The first, best, and even the most law-abiding, of the citizens,” according to the case’s grand jury.
During the wave of immigration from 1880 to 1920, anti-Italian sentiment was high in the United States. Oct. 21, 1892 was designated to be a “general holiday” by President Benjamin Harrison on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Over the years since, Columbus Day has come to represent more than just a celebration of Columbus. It has become a celebration of the 500 years of immigration that followed Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and a day when Italian-Americans celebrate their heritage. Columbus Day isn’t about who Christopher Columbus was or what he did, instead Columbus Day is about the immigration that happened as a result and about the triumphs associated with that immigration.
For many Italian Americans, Columbus Day has been a day about their Italian heritage and the contributions of Italian Americans to the United States. During periods in American history when anti-Italian sentiment was present, Columbus became a figure for Italian Americans to rally around. John M. Viola, the former president and chief operating officer of the National Italian American Foundation, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times, “We believe Christopher Columbus represents the values of discovery and risk that are at the heart of the American dream.”
Christopher Columbus was violent toward and exploitative of Native Americans; that is undeniable, but what he has come to represent to so many people is worthy of preservation. The values associated with him, such as freedom and courage, are now more a part of Columbus Day than Columbus himself.
All historical figures have flaws. Columbus deeply wronged natives in his treatment of them, but if we refuse to celebrate the achievements of every single historical figure that was wrong, we might as well stop celebrating the Fourth of July due to the founding fathers’ misogyny and ownership of slaves.
Columbus Day isn’t about just Christopher Columbus. It’s about Italian American heritage. It’s about the many stories of immigrants coming to America. It’s about what makes America what it is today.