Leif Erikson Day (Oct. 9), on the anniversary of the arrival in New York Harbor of the first organized shipload of immigrants from Norway, began in Wisconsin almost ninety years ago to celebrate Nordic heritage. But it’s the Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus in whose controversial name banks and post offices are closed today. What are we celebrating, exactly?
Columbus Day was never chiefly about conquest and white supremacy. Protestant Americans of English and German ancestry, the dominant culture in the 1800s, paid little attention to Christopher Columbus. Immigrant minority communities – Roman Catholics and particularly Italians – created celebrations named for Columbus to affirm their place in a society that despised them.
Anti-immigrant groups rejected Columbus Day for its association with Catholicism. As Italian immigration peaked in the years around 1900, so did stereotypes of Italians: shifty, criminal, permanently foreign, fit only for manual labor, racially midway between white and Chinese. Violence mounted. Eleven Sicilians were lynched in a single incident in New Orleans in 1891. Ku Klux Klan activity targeted Italian Americans in New Jersey in the 1920s.
Lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, led to the establishment of a national Columbus Day holiday in 1937. Eighty years later, its associations with persecuted immigrants largely forgotten, should we rename it Indigenous Peoples Day? We might do better to let it fade into oblivion alongside Leif Erikson Day. In its place, we could create two holidays on unrelated dates: one named for an American Indian hero or event to honor indigenous peoples, and one to honor all immigrants regardless of faith or national origin.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.