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History of Columbus Day Is a Violent One

President Harrison acted after a mob killed Italian immigrants in New Orleans
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 11, 2021 9:45 AM CDT
Columbus Day Sprang From Violence
In this 2012 file photo, people ride on a float with a large bust of Christopher Columbus during a Columbus Day parade in New York.   (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

(Newser) – Monday is Columbus Day, though the term "politically fraught" is a common one used these days to describe the federal holiday. A look at its history, as well as views from supporters and critics:

  • Going away? Many states and municipalities have either ditched Columbus Day and replaced it with "Indigenous Peoples Day" or at least added the latter as a companion celebration, reports CNN, which lists the states that already have acted. States aren't obligated to observe federal holidays, the story notes.

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  • Retailers: Many steer well clear of this holiday, unlike years ago when sales were the norm. Because Christopher Columbus is associated with colonialism and the destruction of native cultures, retailers don't want to get caught up in the "culture wars," per Axios. "I think this one is an easy one that they can just say, 'Hey, I'm just going to rename the sale or cancel the sale and not worry about it," says Katie Thomas of the management consulting firm Kearney.
  • Violent history: The very first Columbus Day sprang from ethnic violence, explains the Washington Post. President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed it a one-time holiday in 1892 after a mob in New Orleans killed 11 Italian immigrants accused (but not convicted) of killing the police chief. Harrison acted in part to placate the Italian government, as well as Italian American voters. His proclamation, originally intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, set the stage for the day to become an annual holiday in October.

  • In favor: In a Wall Street Journal essay, chess great Garry Kasparov argues that Columbus' deeds as an explorer deserve to be celebrated, even if the man himself was flawed. "This caricature of Columbus as little more than a rapacious villain is as simplistic and wrongheaded as the version of him as a savior-hero who proved the world was round," he writes. The truth is more complex, and "history is not a zero-sum game," adds Kasparov. "We can honor indigenous people and all they represent—and all they lost—without erasing the greatest achievements of the Age of Discovery."
  • Opposed: Columbus was a flawed navigator who left behind a legacy of "excessive" brutality as governor of the West Indies, writes author Celia Viggo Wexler at NBC News. "Why can't we Italians see how much richer our history is than the story of one directionally challenged explorer who spent most of his life outside Italy?" writes Wexler. "Columbus never found the route to China and India he was seeking. We shouldn't make our own wrong turn by continuing to honor his memory."
(Read more Columbus Day stories.)

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