To answer this question we have to look back at the experience that Italians had as immigrants. Italians started emigrating from Italy in mass starting in the late 1800’s. They were running from wars (Italy was going through it’s unification wars) and extreme poverty. When they came to the United States they didn’t receive the warmest of welcomes.
In 1891 the largest mass lynching in the United States took place and the victims were Italians believed to have been involved with the murder of a sheriff. There was such outrage that the general public called for a limitation of Italian immigration. Things got so out of control that Italy broke off diplomatic relations with the US. Interestingly, this is the first time Mafia became part of the American vernacular…
During this time a number of Italians lived in slums, working menial jobs in factories and construction. They were regularly harrassed by social workers who didn’t approve of the diet that they fed their children, fresh vegetables in loo of porridge was frowned upon by the establishment. Through the industrial revolution Italians were not quite on the higher rungs of society. Many were caught up in the anarchist movement that picked up steam during the labor rights movement. There were multiple incidents where bombs were set off. Once in a court room, as revenge for a number of “comrades” being sentenced. 35 people were killed.
Another infamous incident occured in the 1920’s. A horse drawn cart blew up in front of the JP Morgan Chase building. Roughly, 150 people and the horse were killed. The scars can still be seen on the building. For decades it was believed that Italian Anarchists were responsible.
During World War I Italy was an ally but then Italy elected the Great Dulce, aka Mussolini. He went on a campaign encouraging Italians to return and support the Fatherland. Including encouraging women to give up their wedding bands. A number of Italian American newspapers even supported him. Everything changed though when World War II occurred and the bubbling racism boiled over.
In 1942 300,000 Italian Americans were put into internment camps. Having been branded enemy aliens, Italians were banned from fishing in the San Francisco bay (were many earned their livelihood), they were subjected to random raids where short wave radios, flashlights and other “contraband” were confiscated. They were also banned from traveling more than 5 miles from home…and they had to be registered. Men who had fought alongside American soldiers during World War I were thrown in prison. There are stories of soldiers who came home for leave to find that their families were gone with no word.
As you can see up until this point Italians weren’t considered to be Americans. It was on Columbus Day 1943 when the Enemy Alien act was lifted. Attorney General Biddle made the announcement over the television and radio. He said “You Italians have met the test. Your loyalty to this country has been proved. You should now see to it that no American Italian shall be considered disloyal to the United states of America.”
It was in that moment that Italians became Americans. Italians were accepted as part of society. There is no denying that indigenous people suffered greatly at the hands of American settlers from Columbus all the way up to the present day Dakota Pipeline issues. They deserve a cultural day but this day has significance for Italians as well. Is it ok to take a day away from one ethnic group and give it to another?
Many communities in the country host festivals around this time of year. We come together to remember our immigrant past and celebrate what it is that makes us unique. It’s a reminder that we aren’t the caricatures that Hollywood portrays us as. For us it’s not about the name. Columbus is not the best guy to represent Italian culture. He’s a guy who got lost and raped a native people, trust me, we want him representing us just about as much as Tony Soprano. A name change would be preferable to all those involved. I personally vote for it to be changed to Basilone Day (after a great Word War 2 hero) or Italian Heritage Day.
So with all this talk of changing the holiday remember, there is a whole other group of people that his is a significant day for.