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The “Why” of Columbus Day

Today is Columbus Day. What should be a day of pride for Americans of Italian descent. For all Americans, actually.

Instead, over the last several years, there has been a call to eliminate it completely. Several states have changed it to Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. I’m just going to say it – it is just plain wrong.

Whether these people realize it or not, they have pitted two proud cultures against each other. We are each deserving of our own holidays and heritage remembrances. Today is Columbus Day and October is Italian Heritage Month. November 24th if Indigenous Peoples Day and November is Indigenous Peoples Month.

Now if you ask the average American when any of these celebrations take place, I doubt they would know.

But why do we have Columbus Day in the first place?

Glad you asked.

“Who Killa da Chief?”

In the late 1800s, Italians and Sicilians began to land en masse on the shores of the United States. While the mainland Italians mostly arrived at Ellis Island, Boston, and Philadelphia, most of the Sicilian population made their new home in New Orleans. No matter where they landed, they were not welcome.

It all came to a head in October of 1890.

New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy, a Civil War veteran and Irish Catholic, joined the police department in 1870 as a messenger. In 1881, he arrested Italian fugitive Giuseppe Esposito, wanted for multiple crimes, which gave him much praise and attention.

In 1882, Hennessy was tried for the murder of New Orleans Chief of Detectives Thomas Devereaux. Both Hennessy and Devereaux were up for chief. Hennessy claimed self-defense and was found not guilty. After the trial, he left the department and joined a privately-owned security organization, however, the organization had the same power as standard police officers.

In 1885, he was re-hired by the New Orleans Police Department as Chief.

On October 15, 1890, Hennessy was shot by several gunmen as he walked home. He returned fire and later collapsed. According to the story told by Captain William O’Connor, when asked who did it, Hennessy’s response was “The Dagos did it.” Even though he remained alive for several hours after the shooting, he did not name any of the shooters. He died the next day.

Area newspapers, including the Times-Democrat and the Daily Picayune, openly blamed “the Dagoes” for the murder.

New Orleans police went on an all-out manhunt, arresting hundreds. Eventually, the large group was whittled down to 19 Italian and Sicilian immigrants and they were held without bail. The first nine defendants went on trial in February of 1891. Many considered the trial a farce. Proof was shaky, at best. Witnesses were threatened, jurors were bribed, and newspapers declared these men guilty before the trial even began.

Ultimately, of the nine defendants, the jury acquitted six of the men and deadlocked on the remaining three. The judge ordered all the men back to jail “for their own protection.”

Outrage insued.

Local “white” (as Sicilians and Italians were not considered white until the mid 20th century) residents of the area were livid and calling for vengeance. Over the next 24 hours, armed mobs broke into the jail where they men were still being held. They were beaten, dragged out of the prison, shot, and hung.

It was the largest mass-lynching in American history. Not long after the mass lynching, at least eight more Italian men 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 hailed this act of vengeance. Politicians throughout the country spoke positively of the mob violence.

“Personally I think it rather a good thing.” ~President Theodore Roosevelt

March, 1891

The Italian government was furious. The United States was on the brink of war with Italy. They wanted justice.

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

In an effort to ease tensions, 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, but failed, to override the President’s actions. It was still widely considered “just killings.” For generations in New Orleans, local Italian children would be taunted with the line “who killa da chief?”

So What’s Next?

As an American of Italian descent, I have no ill will. I am aware of how terribly Italian immigrants, including my ancestors, were treated. They did what we all do best. We kept our heads down and worked. We proved we could be “good and loyal Americans.” But our success came at a cost.

We weren’t allowed to learn Italian because we needed to “be American.” Names were changed to sound more American. We suffered prejudice. But we endured.

I am incredibly proud of my ancestry and my heritage. I share my culture with those around me. I live as a “good American” who will never forget my Italian roots.

I will never apologize for my culture, my heritage, or my pride.

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