How Columbus Day Fell Victim to Its Own Success

But neither Italians nor other Catholics were prepared to cede such a powerful symbol of their own identity, any more than they were willing to abandon their own particular heritage and beliefs. They wanted Americans to be treated equally, whether of Irish, Italian or Anglo-Saxon descent. They pushed for a new form of American identity, pluralistic enough to allow their children to retain their own creeds and origins and still be accepted as patriotic Americans.

At the forefront of the struggle came the Knights of Columbus. Founded in 1882 as a Catholic alternative to the popular fraternal orders of the day, its first generation of members was almost exclusively Irish. Yet they took Columbus as their namesake, embracing the appeal of America's most popular Catholic as a means of forging a cohesive Catholic community. In grand Columbus Day parades, they asserted their own patriotism and respectability, proudly affirming that good Catholics could also be good Americans.

Out in Colorado, an Italian immigrant named Angelo Noce relentlessly pushed legislation to transform the local observances of the Italian community into a formally recognized holiday. In 1905, he succeeded. There was nothing remotely like it on the civic calendar of the era. The Governor's proclamation declared Columbus Day:

a day upon which maybe gratefully recognized the patriotic Americanism of the Colorado Italians whose generosity prompts them to present to the state an emblem of appreciation of the services to mankind of one of their countrymen, and a material evidence of the good citizenship of those Americans who belong to the same race as he did.

Local papers celebrated it as an important step in combating prejudice and bigotry, but it was much more. It served as a formal acknowledgment that immigrants could preserve their own ethnic identities and simultaneously embrace their new nation. Two years later, it became a statutory holiday. Over the ensuing decades, the Knights of Columbus pressed the cause in other states, with widespread success. In 1934, Congress voted to recognize Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

The success of the Catholic and Italian communities in laying claim to the great discoverer, and with him to their own place in the New World, led others to follow suit. Some Jews suggested that Columbus had been financed or accompanied by marranos, or even that Columbus himself was secretly Jewish. No, others replied, Columbus was actually Greek, Catalan, Portugese, Polish, or even Norwegian. It is not necessary to grant credence to any of these claims in order to take their motives seriously. The elevation of Columbus into a patriotic icon suggested to immigrants that they might demand full acceptance, and not mere toleration. If other marginalized immigrant groups saw in the Genoese Catholic sailing for the Spanish Crown a little bit of their own story, they were not entirely wrong.

The great irony of Columbus Day, though, is that its struggle for a pluralistic nation succeeded only too well. The ineradicable racial difference of the swarthy Italians faded, over a short few decades, into an indistinguishable whiteness. In 1960, America elected a Catholic president. New waves of immigrants, and other marginalized groups, pressed for an America that would affirm the equality not only of different varieties of white men from Europe, but of all of its varied people. And they proved less likely to recognize themselves in Columbus than in his victims.

The land Columbus encountered was already abundantly peopled; celebrating his voyage as a discovery seemed to confirm a Eurocentric narrative. Many activists pointed to Columbus' own sins, most significantly his brutal treatment of the continent's indigenous inhabitants. Others broadened the attack to encompass the subsequent centuries of abuse visited upon native peoples, and the varied flaws of the nations created in his wake. His critics transformed Columbus into the paradigmatic dead white male, a symbol of the limits and costs of American opportunity.

Just as the 400th anniversary of his arrival once galvanized celebrations, the 500th anniversary crystallized this opposition. "Columbus represents fundamentally the beginnings of modern white racism and the construction of racial identities in the United States," charged historian Manning Marable in 1992. In Denver, where the legal holiday began, American Indian Movement activists poured fake blood on a statue of Columbus in 1989, setting the model for nationwide protests. They capped several years of escalating protests by shutting down the cinquecentennial Columbus Day Parade.

As protesters confront paraders today, they might consider that they actually share quite a bit in common. Those who created Columbus Day, like those who now denounce it, were engaged in a struggle to define a more capacious and inclusive nation. That a holiday named for an Italian Catholic is now taken to mark a national identity that is too narrow, rather than too broad, is the ultimate evidence of its success.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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