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Let’s Talk About Columbus

Depending on your camp, today is either Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples Day. I openly admit I have waffled on Columbus Day over the years.

When I was young, I didn’t really give it much of a thought beyond a day off from school and going to parades. When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to march in the Belleville-Nutley Columbus Day Parade as a member of the marching band and I even had the chance to walk in the Newark Parade.

Then things began to change.

A new narrative developed. Columbus was a the cause of slavery, the pillaging of the New World, the death of tens of thousands of Native Americans. Admittedly, I didn’t do any research or question it. Just like what I learned in school, I just accepted what I was told.

Then came the call to eliminate Columbus Day, tear down statues, and more. Whether they realized it or not, they had their desired affect.

It made me feel shame.

After all, even though Columbus explored on behalf of the Spaniards, he was Italian. They had very slyly accomplished their mission.

Then in 2020, under the cover of darkness, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka took down the Columbus Status in Washington Park. No discussion, no vote, Just him.

“In keeping with the movement to remove symbols of oppression and white supremacy, we have decided to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from Washington Park. We took it down with City work crews in a safe and orderly manner, to avoid the potential danger of people taking it upon themselves to topple it.” ~Mayor Ras Baraka

I went from shame to anger.

The city where my family settled when they arrived. The city that at one point had one of the largest Italian enclaves in the country. The city that decided that very neighborhood was a slum and displaced tens of thousands of Italian immigrants, destroying their homes.

My city.

The statue was dedicated as a gift to the Newark from the Italian-American community. From 1924 to 1927, Italian immigrants donated funds to have the statue erected. A total of $25,000 was raised. Newark’s Christopher Columbus was unveiled on Columbus Day, 1927, in front of a crowd of over 30,000.

Mayor Baraka said the statue would be stored until a decision was made on how best to proceed.

The storage or Newark’s Columbus statue at a lot on Verona Avenue. (Source: jerseydigs.com; Photo by Patrick Defrancisci)

“The removal of this statue should not be perceived as an insult to the Italian-American community,” ~Mayor Ras Baraka.

After the statue came down, I wrote the Mayor several heartfelt letters. I told him about the Italian community that literally built the City he now manages. I provided suggestions of others from the Italian Newark community he could highlight in his place as a way to continue to remember all the contributions the Italian community made.

I never heard back. I know, you’re shocked.

Truth is, he didn’t care then and I really don’t think he cares now.

I then decided to learn all I could to really understand the story of Columbus. I purchased books and read online articles. I sadly learned one specific reality. Politics is involved in everything.

Just as “journalists” and news channels serve a specific audience, so goes the story of Columbus.

My official opinion is we weren’t there, so we don’t know. I doubt he is the saint Italian Americans consider him and he is not the sinner detractors consider him.

So why Columbus in the First Place?

As I spoke to different people, I learned something very interesting. None of them knew why or how Columbus Day began. Not even a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager.

So let me tell you the history of Columbus Day.

On October 15th, 1890, New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was shot by an unknown attacker. Before the Chief succumbed to his injuries, he reportedly told his Captain William O’Connor, “the Dagoes did it.”

Following the Chief’s murder, the local police were told to “scour the whole neighborhood and arrest every Italian you come across.” By the next day 45 Italian immigrants were arrested. Eventually hundreds were rounded up and investigated. Just because they were Italian. Most were eventually released due to lack of evidence.

Ultimately, 19 men were charged in association with the Chief’s murder. One man was even arrested and charged just because he lived across the street from where the Chief was shot.

A committee was created to investigate those believed to be involved in the shooting. They went to great lengths to find evidence against them. While these men were being held, a newspaper salesman worked his way into the prison and shot one of the Italian prisoners. He survived, but was lynched a few months later. The shooter, Thomas Duffy, was eventually convicted of assault and sentenced to six months in prison.

By the time the trial began in February of 1891, a total of nine suspects were tried. The evidence presented was incredibly weak. Captain O’Connor was never called to testify.

They were all found not guilty. Nine men were returned to prison. Six still had pending charges of “lying in wait” with intent to commit murder.

The jurors faced the angry crowd that had gathered outside the courthouse after word spread of the verdict. They said they had reasonable doubt and did what they thought was right. I commend them for their actions, which ultimately cost some of them friends, their jobs, and other difficulties in their lives.

The next day an angry mob forced their way into the prison and dragged out 11 innocent Italian immigrants. They were beaten, shot, and lynched. Several survived by hiding in different locations within the building. Of those nine, five had not even been tried and the remaining four were tried and acquitted. After the mass lynching, at least eight more men of Italian descent were lynched in Louisiana.

It is worth mentioning two of the members of the lynch mob included John Parker, who went on to become Louisiana’s 37th governor, and Walter Flower, who was elected the 44th mayor of New Orleans.

Press coverage of the incident was openly sympathetic to the angry mob as well as from politicians in Washington.

“Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans. Personally I think it rather a good thing, and said so.” ~Theodore Roosevelt, who was serving on the United States Civil Service Commission at the time of the lynching. (letter to Roosevelt’s sister; March 21, 1891)

As a result, the Italian Consul Pasquale Corte left New Orleans in late May 1891. The Italian government demanded the lynch mob be brought to justice and that damages be paid to the dead men’s families. When the U.S. announced they would not prosecute, Italy recalled its ambassador from Washington in protest. Diplomatic relations between the two nations remained frosty for over a year and there was even talk of Italy declaring war on the United States over the incident.

In an effort to ease tensions with Italy, as well as the Italian American community, President Benjamin Harrison declared the first nationwide celebration of Columbus Day in 1892, commemorating the 400th anniversary of his landing in the New World. President Harrison also paid approximately $2,000 to each of the 11 families that suffered the loss of a family member at the hands of the angry mob. Congress tried unsuccessfully to override the President’s actions.

Ongoing Anti-Italian Sentiment

The lynching of 1891 is just one example of the ongoing discrimination and anti-Italian sentiment that still takes place today. It was during the trial of the Italians the word Mafia was introduced to the American vernacular. And it never left. It follows every American of Italian descent just like the vowels at the end of our names.

Where Can you Learn More?

One of the best sources of information I can recommend on the subject of Columbus is the podcast from The Italian American Podcast. This multi-part special series presented the information about Columbus Day with the precision of a trial. A non-biased look from scholars and historians, the team presents points from both sides of the argument. It is incredibly well-done and I highly recommend you listen to the entire series.

Who Killa da Chief by J.C. Berkery
Who Killa da Chief? by J.C. Berkery (Source: Google Books)

The book Vendetta: The True Story of the Largest Lynching in U.S. History by professor at City University of New York, Richard Gambino, looks at the investigation and trial that led to the lynching. The 1999 HBO movie Vendetta, starring Christopher Walken, is based on Gambino’s book.

The lynching is discussed in the 2004 documentary, Linciati: Lynchings of Italians in America, directed by M. Heather Hartley.

The Innocent Lynched: The Story of Eleven Italians Lynched in New Orleans by Joseph Gentile is another resource that looks at what happened in 1891 and how the negative stereotypes are still felt today.

Finally, ‘WHO KILLA Da CHIEF?: Lynchings of 11 Italians in 1891 New Orleans by J. C. Berkery examines the events leading up the lynching. The book’s title comes from a common phrase used by the children of New Orleans to harass Italian American children in their neighborhoods.

Final Thoughts

This is obviously a much longer post than usual for me. However, I felt it was important to provide the full context of the why behind the day that has been so hotly contested in recent years. I am not here to convince you to keep, or not keep, Columbus Day, as I have found it is incredibly hard to change someone’s mind these days. My job here is to educate and tell the story behind the day.

In the end, the history of our country can be ugly. There are parts I would prefer didn’t happen. But the founding of a nation is ugly. The keeping of a nation is ugly. It is important we learn all of it.

Personally, I have decided not to feel the shame I felt a few years ago. Instead, I have decided to educate myself. To read and consume information from a variety of sources and come to my own conclusions. Everyone, whether they admit it or not, has their own biases; from the miniscule to the major. The best we can all do is learn from our history and take people as they come.

One thought on “Let’s Talk About Columbus

  1. I think it’s impossible to celebrate that man’s life when you know and have seen the full extent of the erasure of indigenous lives that he was personally responsible for. How do 11 Italian families deserve to commemorate Columbus but the roughly ~55 million people that died as a result of his actions do not get to commemorate their communities? Sadly, for many of us who grew up in Latin America and had ancestors rooted in the indigenous tribes he killed and erased, the celebration of his life feels like celebrating a recent dictator who killed six million European Jews. “The best we can all do is learn from our history and take people as they come.” the best you can do is not celebrate a murderer in the name of Italian nationalism.

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