For many of us, Columbus Day is remembered as a day in which we commemorate the discovery of the Americas by the Italian Renaissance explorer, Christopher Columbus. The holiday falls on the second Monday of October, and it is a time in which many of us, except for government officials and bank employees, do not have the holiday off from our workday (unless we intentionally take the day off), though we manage to also commemorate the holiday by often watching the many parades that are prevalent on this day, or throwing a party. For many Italian Americans, however, it is a quite special time for them to display their pride by dressing up, playing music, and of course, making lots of wonderful food.
There is, in fact, a long tradition regarding Italians involvement with Columbus Day—for early on in American history it signified the attainment of a great Italian Renaissance explorer who established the first permanent European colony in the New World and therefore marks the very beginning of recorded history in America.
The first commemoration of Columbus Day occurred in 1892, just one year after the New Orleans lynching where Italian Americans were wrongly murdered by a mob who claimed they were involved in the murder of a police chief—David Hennessey. It appears that anti-Italian sentiment leading up to this incident had been growing ever since the late nineteenth century since Italian Americans had been recruited to satisfy cheap labor across America. Accordingly, the incident gained nationally wide consequences: the New York Times published a lengthy article that charged politicians for the murders; it was a time in which Italy cut off diplomatic relations to the US, sparking rumors or war; and when the term, “Mafia” was first used in a pejorative manner for Italian Americans, becoming imprinted in the collective American imagination.
Recognizing the gravity of this issue and wanting to mitigate the ever-increasing rising tensions, the then President Benjamin Harrison decided to call for a national observance of Columbus Day in honor of the four hundredth anniversary of the Renaissance explorer’s arrival to the Americas, and therefore directly linking the day with patriotism and developing a celebratory sentiment amongst all hard-working, honest Americans.
As a result of the first commemoration of this holiday, there began the repairing of what had previously been the difficult times Italian Americans faced—most notably, religious and ethnic discrimination. Many in the Italian community seized the day and saw celebrating it as a new found way to be accepted into the American mainstream, and enjoying the benefits of this newly found acceptance and place in America generally.
Contributed by Mark Balto, Ph.D. Assistant Librarian at Midtown Library
Author Unknown. “Signor Corte’s Farewell: His Story of the Lynching of the Italians.” New York Times May 24 1891. Accessed Aug.14 2018.