How Columbus Day Fell Victim to Its Own Success

It's worth remembering that the now-controversial holiday started as a way to empower immigrants and celebrate American diversity.

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Children show Italian pride during an annual Columbus Day parade in New York City. (Reuters)

Today is Columbus Day, a solemn occasion marked by parades, pageantry, and buckets of fake blood splashed on statues of its namesake. Activists have turned the commemoration of Columbus' landfall in the New World into an annual protest against "the celebration of genocide." What the protesters may not know, however, is that the holiday they are protesting once played a crucial role in forging a society capable of listening to their concerns. This is the curious tale of how Columbus Day fell victim to its own remarkable success.

Christopher Columbus has been, from the first, a powerful symbol of American nationalism. In the early American republic, Columbus provided a convenient means for the new nation to differentiate itself from the old world. His name, rendered as Columbia, became a byword for the United States. Americans represented their nation as a woman named Columbia, adopted Hail, Columbia! as an unofficial anthem, and located their capitol in the District of Columbia.

Italian-Americans, arriving in large numbers in the late nineteenth century, took note of the reverence which their famous countryman enjoyed. It was a far cry from the treatment they themselves received. Many Americans believed Italians to be racially inferior, their difference made visible by their "swarthy" or "brown" skins. They were often portrayed as primitive, violent, and unassimilable, and their Catholicism brought them in for further abuse. After an 1891 lynching of Italians in New Orleans, a New York Times editorial proclaimed Sicilians "a pest without mitigation," adding, for good measure, that "our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they."

Italians quickly adopted Columbus as a shield against the ethnic, racial, and religious discrimination they faced in their adoptive country. They promoted a narrative of national origins that traced back beyond Plymouth or Jamestown, all the way to San Salvador. How could a nation, they asked, reject the compatriots of its own discoverer?

Instead of accepting Italians, many nativists chose to reject Columbus. They cast about for a racially acceptable discoverer of the New World, and found him in Leif Erikson. The exploits of the great Viking explorer, recorded in Icelandic sagas, were already being promoted by Norwegian immigrants, eager to find acceptance of their own. If America did not, after all, owe its existence to an Italian Catholic, then there would be no need to accept his modern compatriots. "At a moment of increasing fear that the nation was committing race suicide," explains historian Joanne Mancini, "the thought of Viking ghosts roaming the streets of a city increasingly filled with Irish, Italian, and Jewish hordes must have been comforting to an Anglo-Saxon elite."

Viking motifs began to pop up in architecture, purported Viking artifacts were duly unearthed, and a general craze ensued. The noted Harvard chemist Eben Norton Horsford claimed for the Norsemen "the honor of having discovered America, five hundred years before Columbus." He concluded that Leif Erikson had made landfall in his own Cambridge, and expressed his hope that "the American, native born, will come here, as of old, to rekindle his pride in his birthright." In 1887, a committee of assorted worthies, including James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles W. Eliot, and Oliver Wendell Holmes raised the funds to erect a statue of Leif Erikson amid the stately homes of Boston's Back Bay.

The celebration of Erikson often crossed over into explicit denigration of Catholics in general, and of Columbus in particular. It was "necessary for the truth, as to the discovery of America, to be established immediately," an advocate of Norse priority explained, lest acceptance of the claims of Columbus lead Americans to "yield to the foulest tyrant the world has ever had, the Roman Catholic power!"

Such attacks certainly enjoyed support, but by the end of the nineteenth century the enthusiasm for the coming quadricentennial celebrations overwhelmed anti-Catholic bigotry. Leading figures of the establishment advanced, instead, a Columbus stripped of his ethnic or religious particularity, an idol for straightforward patriotic veneration. Francis Bellamy, who wanted an American flag in every public school classroom, hit upon the idea of a national celebration of Columbus Day in the schools to mark the anniversary. In his magazine, Youth's Companion, he printed a new Pledge of Allegiance for schoolchildren across the country to recite in unison as they faced one of his flags. It addressed the pressing need, his magazine explained, "to assimilate these children to an American standard of life and ideas."

The public celebrations of the Columbian Centennial likewise advanced the goal of assimilating immigrants into a single American identity. The 1892 Columbus Day parade in New York City displayed "the flower and the fruitage of the civil and religious liberty of the American republic," wrote Martha J. Lamb. She was particularly pleased to see that "children who were the descendants of the peoples of every nation, marched under one flag, the Flag of the United States...growing up to be educated American citizens, no matter what might be their creed or their origin."

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.

Presented by

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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