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Why Did They Call It Columbus Day, Anyway?

Photo Credit: Costa4NY.Licensed CC-BY.
Columbus Day NYC, 2013.
Photo Credit: Costa4NY. Licensed CC-BY.

It’s a good bet that not many people know Generos Pope. Which is unfortunate, because according to his Wikipedia biography, Pope (birth name Papa; Americanized because of discrimination against Italian immigrants) is greatly responsible for giving us two unrelated icons of Americana–the National Enquirer and Columbus Day.

It was actually son Generos Jr. who made the Enquirer, and the Weekly World News, what they are today. But it was the Senior Pope, a New York businessman and owner of mostly Italian-language newspapers, who lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt to make Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1934. It’s not known if Pope ever stepped foot into Seattle, and he died in 1950, but he still caused a bit of a commotion at City Hall last week.

As expected, the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights & Technology voted to name Oct. 13 Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Full council is expected to pass the measure on Oct. 6. While Seattle likes to be in the forefront of such things in this case, it’s a little late to the party: Minnesota and South Dakota have already passed similar measures. The Council was even supposed to pass the resolution back on Sept. 2, but Mayor Ed Murray (possibly taking a cue from obits written about Paul Schell noting that the former Mayor didn’t promote himself enough) wanted the vote moved back to the Oct. 6 so he could make it a photo-op on Columbus Day.

Bruce Harrell, the council head of the civil rights committee, said that Columbus Day won’t be affected by the new holiday. Of course, Washington’s one of 22 states where the day isn’t celebrated anyway. Banks are closed and mail isn’t delivered, but for most people it’s just another day. Back in 2009, the Wall Street Journal questioned whether the holiday was dying out after Philadelphia–the cradle of liberty–cancelled its Columbus Day parade. The city of Columbus, Ohio had already cancelled its parade, some years earlier.

Many Native American groups around the country have lobbied against Columbus Day in recent years. Books like Howard Zinn’s People’s History Of The United States and Lies My Teacher Told Me, recount how Columbus’ discovery of the New World was marked by mass genocide of the natives and many being shipped back to Spain as slaves. In 2006, a report was found in Spain written by Francisco de Bobadilla, who was sent to the Indies by Ferdinand and Isabella to investigate Columbus (the world’s first special prosecutor?). De Bobadilla, who eventually replaced Columbus as Governor of the region, filed a 48-page report. The report told of a brutal reign where people’s noses and ears were cut off for minor offenses, and those who revolted against Columbus were killed and had their dismembered bodies parade through the streets to discourage further rebellion.

However, Columbus was viewed as a great explorer when Italian-Americans celebrated the first Columbus Day in New York city on October 12, 1866, believed to be around the date that Columbus arrived in the New World. In 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, President Benjamin Harrison encouraged teachers, preachers and politicians to use Columbus Day as a time to promote patriotism, support for war, and loyalty to the nation.

Along with Pope and Angelo Noce, who was instrumental in Colorado becoming the first state to recognize Columbus Day in 1907, groups like the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic organization named after Columbus, also pushed for the holiday. Tony Anderson, President of the Northwest Branch of the Sons of Italy, says it was definitely made a holiday in response to discrimination against Italians.

Some major cities, like New York and San Francisco, still have a Columbus Day Parade. The city I grew up in, Providence, Rhode Island, has one of the largest Italian populations in the country. The city traditionally hosts a parade along with a weekend-long festival featuring vendors peddling Italian foods and pasties. Plus, there are rides for the kids and a wine-tasting contest for adults. But even in Providence, Brown University, the city’s largest university (and second biggest employer), always uses the term Fall Weekend, when promoting the event. (Ironically, for a city oozing with Italian culture, the Columbus Theater eventually became a rundown porno movie house. But that’s another story).

Opponents of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day measure, got their chance to speak on Wednesday. Tony Anderson, president of the Sons of Italy, said ending Columbus Day would be similar to doing away with Martin Luther King Day or St. Patrick’s Day (although opponents say Columbus Day is more comparable to a Hitler Day or bin Laden Day). Other speakers said the holiday is about Italians and doesn’t have much to do with Columbus himself. Still another speaker said that the committee was turning “two oppressed minorities against each other,” which raises a fascinating question – how many Seattleites consider Italians an oppressed minority?

After an hour of testimony, members of the committee – Bruce Harrell, a lifelong Seattleite born to an African-American father and Japanese-American mother, Kshama Sawant, who was born in the “real” India (the one Columbus was looking for) and Nick Licata, who noted at Wednesday’s hearing that three of his grandparents were born in Italy – voted unanimously in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

On Oct. 12, Seattle will have its 7th Annual Abolish Columbus Day Rally and March. The rally takes place at Westlake Park, beginning at noon, and then participants will march to the John T. Williams Pole in Seattle Center. The organizers of the Abolish Columbus Day festivities, say that Murray’s proclamation scheduled for the following day, won’t end their festivities.

They say Abolish Columbus Day will take place every year until the holiday is eliminated throughout the country.