NYC schools rename Columbus Day as Italian Heritage/Indigenous People's Day

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New York City’s public school system has eliminated the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with ‘Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day’ while also adding Juneteenth as a school holiday for the first time. 

On Tuesday morning, the city’s Department of Education posted the 2021-22 school calendar online without fanfare, replacing Columbus Day on October 11 with Indigenous People’s Day.

After backlash from the city’s Italian American leaders, the calendar was taken offline on Tuesday evening, and re-posted with the holiday changed to ‘Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.’ 

‘City Hall wants Italian Heritage Day and Indigenous People’s Day so no one is left out,’ Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesman told the New York Post. 

New York City's public school system has eliminated the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with 'Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People's Day'. Mayor Bill de Blasio is seen above

New York City’s public school system has eliminated the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with ‘Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day’. Mayor Bill de Blasio is seen above 

People attend the annual Columbus Day Parade in New York in 2019. The annual event celebrates the day that Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492

People attend the annual Columbus Day Parade in New York in 2019. The annual event celebrates the day that Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492

Asked whether City Hall had been aware of the decision to wipe Columbus Day from the school calendar, the spokesman told the outlet only: ‘We do not agree with not including Italian Heritage Day.’ 

Juneteenth, which celebrates the June 19 date in 1865 when the final slaves in the U.S. were emancipated, falls on a Sunday in 2022 and will be observed by the school system on June 20.  

Monday, June 27 will be the final day of the school year for students in the city.

The initial removal of Columbus Day without any mention of an ‘Italian Heritage Day’ drew angry reactions from New York’s leaders in the Italian American community.

City Councilman Joe Borelli of Staten Island called the change ‘insulting woke nonsense’ in a tweet.

After the Department of Education backtracked on the name of the holiday, he remarked: ‘They tried, they got caught, they changed it, they covered the mistake. Cowards. Just have the gumption to cancel the day. Wonder what our mayoral candidates think?’ 

In March, Meisha Porter took over as Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and would ultimately oversee any changes to the school holiday calendar. 

Participants march in the Juneteenth celebration parade through the streets of Harlem in New York in a file photo. Juneteenth will be a new holiday for NYC schools next year

Participants march in the Juneteenth celebration parade through the streets of Harlem in New York in a file photo. Juneteenth will be a new holiday for NYC schools next year

In March, Meisha Porter took over as Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and would ultimately oversee any changes to the school holiday calendar

In March, Meisha Porter took over as Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and would ultimately oversee any changes to the school holiday calendar

Porter, the first black woman to hold the Chancellor role in the city, was promoted internally after climbing the rungs of the NYC school system, starting as an English teacher and most recently serving as Bronx executive superintendent. 

The debate over Columbus Day, and the legacy of Christopher Columbus more generally, has been simmering across the country for years.

Italian Americans view the explorer, born in Genoa, as a source of national and ethnic pride. Columbus made the first documented European contact with the Caribbean and Central and South America in 1492.

Columbus Day parades were originally celebrated in the 1800s, and the holiday was made official as a gesture of support for the community, which at the time suffered from xenophobia and discrimination.

Columbus’ detractors view him as a genocidal colonizer, however, and there is good evidence that Columbus brutally subjugated and enslaved the native Taino people in his quest for gold in the Caribbean. 

As early as 2014, Seattle’s city council voted unanimously to to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, a move angering the local Italian American community but cheered by Native American activists.

Chicago's controversial statue of Christopher Columbus is hoisted away by a crane in the early hours last year, watched by a municipal crew who helped to remove it from Grant Park

Chicago’s controversial statue of Christopher Columbus is hoisted away by a crane in the early hours last year, watched by a municipal crew who helped to remove it from Grant Park

It is a debate that has played out across the country, with city’s and states voting to rename Columbus Day, which remains a federal holiday observed the second Monday in October.

Last year, statues of Columbus were a frequent target of vandalism during Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ‘temporarily’ removed two prominent statues of Columbus citing safety concerns. The statues have still not been replaced, drawing angry outcry from Italian Americans last month.

In Philadelphia, an alliance of Italian American groups is suing Mayor Jim Kenney and the city for a ‘long pattern of discrimination’, including canceling the Columbus Day parade and ripping down a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo.

They accuse Kenney of trying to erase Italian-American identity in the city, favoring rioters over people trying to protect statues, and demoting a beloved police captain.

Mari Caraballo, with Golden Slippers Brigade, center, waves her Italian flag as part of the Columbus Day parade on Broad Street in Philadelphia in 2017

Mari Caraballo, with Golden Slippers Brigade, center, waves her Italian flag as part of the Columbus Day parade on Broad Street in Philadelphia in 2017

Last month, the Maine Monument at Columbus Circle was vandalized with red paint by BLM protesters. The Columbus monument in the circle remains hotly debated

Last month, the Maine Monument at Columbus Circle was vandalized with red paint by BLM protesters. The Columbus monument in the circle remains hotly debated

They claim Mayor Kenney had been part of efforts to unfairly recast Columbus as a racist, when he had been the ‘first recorded civil rights activist of the Americas’. 

The groups equated the mayor’s alleged persecution of Italian-Americans to the way the Ku Klux Klan had tried to ‘destroy Columbus Day’ in the 1920s and 1930s because of their ‘bigotry toward Catholics and Italian immigrants’. 

Mayor Kenney has called the lawsuit a ‘patently meritless political ploy’ that will waste resources. 

The most prominent statue of Columbus still standing in the U.S. may be the monument atop a 76-foot column in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.

The statue has remained behind police barricades for nearly a year, and its future remains hotly debated. 

Who was Christopher Columbus and why is he so divisive? 

Christopher Columbus, (1451 - 1506)

Christopher Columbus, (1451 – 1506)

Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa, Italy in 1451, secured his place in history by leading the first expeditions to make European contact with the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Sponsored by the Spanish monarchy, Columbus made four expeditions across the Atlantic in a quest to find a western sea passage to the East Indies.

Columbus had convinced Spain’s Queen Isabella to fund his voyage by promising that the riches he’d collect would be used to finance a crusade to ‘reclaim’ Jerusalem for Christians. Instead, he found new foods, animals and indigenous people who, he wrote, were childlike and could be easily enslaved. 

Even in his own time, Columbus was accused of cruelty and incompetence in his role as Viceroy and Governor of the Indies, and of brutal mistreatment of the native Taino people on the island of Hispaniola.

Columbus’ supporters say that many of the claims are exaggerated or false, and that the matter is clouded by a contemporaneous smear campaign both against Columbus by his political rivals, and by northern European countries against Catholic Spain.

However, there is good evidence that Columbus brutally subjugated and enslaved the Taino people in the quest for gold.

In 2006, historians discovered a contemporaneous investigative report in Spanish archives, which revealed the results of an inquiry into accusations that Columbus ruled brutally as governor.

The report contained accounts of mutilation, torture and cruelty that were shocking even to Columbus’ contemporaries, and resulted in his permanent removal as governor and temporary imprisonment by King Ferdinand.

‘Columbus’s government was characterized by a form of tyranny,’ Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian who has seen the document, told journalists. ‘Even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that had taken place.’

Around 60 years after Columbus’ arrival, the Taino indigenous population of the Caribbean had been reduced from an estimated 250,000 people to a few hundred because of slavery and death from new diseases. 

However for many Italian Americans, the Italian-born explorer continues to be an important symbol in their heritage. 

Millions of Italian immigrants traveled across the Atlantic and through Ellis Island in New York to start a new life in America in the late 1880s to 1920s.

They faced xenophobia and prejudice, including one of the largest single mass lynchings in American history when 11 were murdered in 1891 in New Orleans. 

The Italian explorer thereby became a cultural hero for Italian immigrants to hold on to during this time, and Columbus Day parades began in the late 1800s. 

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