His statues have been toppled and his holiday increasingly displaced by Indigenous Peoples Day, but Christopher Columbus still has plenty of Italian American fans, who refused Monday to be shut down by the protests or the pandemic.
In New York, the Columbus Citizens Foundation replaced its annual extravaganza with a “virtual parade,” an Italian Heritage & Achievement event featuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo that culminated in the unveiling of a statue of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, also known as Mother Cabrini, in Battery Park.
“I’m so happy that this day has finally arrived,” said the foundation’s chairman, Angelo Vivolo, as shown on WABC-TV. “Ordinarily, we would be marching in the joyful Columbus Day parade looking at the bands that play and floats that come up Fifth Avenue, but this year we’re celebrating differently. We’re celebrating our heritage by honoring a remarkable Italian woman of faith.”
In Chicago, the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans replaced its parade with a scaled-down, socially distanced celebration that included a wreath-laying, car procession, Mass and “Proud and Positive” rally at Little Italy’s Arrigo Park, the former site of a Columbus statue.
Why former? In July, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered three Columbus memorials temporarily removed for public safety reasons after protesters sought to pull down the statues. In a melee that ensued at the statue in Grant Park, 49 officers and four demonstrators were injured.
The Joint Civic Committee sent a letter Friday asking the mayor to restore the Columbus memorials, but Ms. Lightfoot said the city is taking an inventory of its monuments and studying “ways in which we can do a better job reflecting Chicago’s history.”
Certainly the Genovese navigator, viewed by his supporters as a courageous explorer and his critics as the colonizer responsible for bringing disease and slavery to the Americas, has had a rough summer.
An estimated 33 Columbus statues were pulled down or deliberately removed by local governments during the rioting sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, the latest episode in a nearly 30-year campaign to consign the explorer to the ash heap of history.
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia now observe Indigenous Peoples Day or Native Americans’ Day along with, or instead of, Columbus Day, as do an estimated 130 cities, starting with Berkeley, California, in 1992. However, Columbus Day is still a federal holiday observed on the second Monday of October.
In Portland, Oregon, protesters held an “Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage” ahead of Columbus Day that devolved into a riot. Vandals pulling down statues not of Columbus — who doesn’t have a public sculpture in Portland — but of former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Demonstrators held a march Sunday in Boston demanding that the city replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day and permanently remove the Columbus statue at Waterfront Park that was taken down after vandals beheaded it in June.
“City by city, town by town, Christopher Columbus has to come down,” the protesters chanted, according to WBUR-FM.
Meanwhile, Mayor Ben Walsh announced Friday that Syracuse, New York, would remove its downtown Columbus statue and rename Columbus Circle, where the statue has stood since 1934.
“This space should be both a tribute to Italian Americans and a place of healing at which we celebrate our shared accomplishments,” Mr. Walsh said in a statement. “This decision is based on the fact that we can honor our Italian American community without focusing on a statue that has become the source of division over decades and overshadowed the original intent of the monument.”
Knights of Columbus
Even as the tides of history threaten to engulf Columbus, fans of the explorer long credited with “discovering” America are fighting to preserve his legacy.
In July, five of the largest Italian American organizations founded the National Columbus Education Foundation with the aim of “correcting the false narrative about Christopher Columbus.”
“Up until now, critics of Columbus have refused to have an open discussion and based their vitriolic attacks on one or two accounts of Columbus’ life written hundreds of years ago by people with their own agendas, and we think that ought to be corrected,” John Viola, the foundation’s executive director, said in a statement. “At this critical moment in American social history, if we really want to correct historical wrongs, then we can’t perform that delicate surgery by chopping at it with a blunt axe, and that is what is happening.”
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s service group, premiered Sunday “Courage and Conviction: The True Story of Christopher Columbus,” a 28-minute documentary narrated by actor Chazz Palminteri, which discusses the explorer’s “remarkable genius as a sea navigator as well as his deep desire to bring all nations to Christ.”
“Finally, the film addresses the current indictments against Christopher Columbus with boldness and exposes the motives behind the attacks of revisionist historians,” said the press release. “Courage and Conviction shows why Christopher Columbus remains not only a man worthy of admiration, but a noble icon of what it means to be a Catholic and an American.”
In their corner is President Trump, whose Columbus Day proclamation hailed the navigator’s achievements and took a swipe at “radical activists [who] have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy.”
Even where Columbus Day is still celebrated, the holiday has frequently been reframed to place the emphasis on Italian-American heritage versus Columbus himself.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was in Massachusetts and did not attend the Cabrini statue ceremony, gave a shout-out on social media to Italian American Heritage Month as well as American Indians, with no mention of Columbus.
“Today we also recognize this land’s Indigenous people,” tweeted the mayor. “While we can never fully make amends for their unimaginable suffering, we can commit to investing in the communities and respecting the nations that were forever changed.”
“Today is Columbus Day, so we celebrate the Italian legacy as beautiful as it is,” he said.
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