How cities turned against a controversial holiday.
Columbus is everywhere. The Genoese explorer may have never set foot in North America, but he still managed to get his name and mug all over the Western Hemisphere. Most U.S. cities carry multiple references to Christopher Columbus—and not just on statues and street names, but the cities themselves. From Columbia, South Carolina to Columbus, Ohio, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea staked a hard-to-erase claim over millions of acres of the United States. Heck, the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, is Columbus Country.
But in recent years, efforts to de-Columbus the U.S. have grown in strength and size, thanks to the famed navigator’s increasingly problematic historical reputation: Christopher Columbus, after all, kicked off a horrific genocide, treated non-white people as sub-human, and wasn’t even the first European to happen upon the Americas. Scores of cities and three states have replaced his namesake holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Statues and memorials devoted to Columbus now draw the regular attention of protesters and vandals, while his parades are getting rebranded and cancelled. Are we sailing toward a New World without Columbus?
What’s in a name?
The notion of kicking Columbus out of his own holiday started back in 1977, at the United Nations’ International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. But Berkeley, California, was the first U.S. city to formally replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day; its city council voted in the change in 1991 and it was first celebrated the following year in lieu of the Columbus Quincentennial, a nationwide celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.
Two years later, Santa Cruz, California, joined Berkeley to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Then, in 2014, a small flood of cities, including Seattle and Minneapolis, joined these two progressive Bay Area towns. In 2016, Denver joined in, followed by Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and San Francisco (which was the first city to celebrate Columbus Day), among others. (Here’s a complete list.) This year, even Columbus, Ohio, has cancelled its observation of Columbus Day.
But other cities have contemplated ditching Columbus and decided against it: Lawmakers in Baltimore, for example, voted down a measure to change the holiday.
It’s not just cities. Four states also officially celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day: Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, and South Dakota (which calls it Native American Day). Nevada celebrates indigenous people on a different day than Columbus Day.
Don’t forget the memorials
Even if your city changes the name of the holiday, you’re probably going to be left with a whole lot of Columbus-related statuary. In recent years, the movement to remove Confederate memorials has expanded to include other historical figures. In 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked a commission to examine statues that could be considered “symbols of hate,” which included the prominent statue of the explorer in Columbus Circle. (This earned him boos at that year’s Columbus Day parade.) This statue has been vandalized several times (and has been placed on around the clock guard), but the commission did not recommend its removal.
Washington, D.C, New Haven, Chicago and others have also seen Columbus statues and memorials covered in red paint, smashed, and vandalized. In Baltimore, activists took a sledgehammer to a 44-foot-tall obelisk erected in 1792—believed to be the first monument to Columbus in an American city—prompting a debate as to whether it should be replaced or restored.
After vandals repeatedly targeted a statue of Columbus that stood in the lobby of San Jose City Hall, the city voted to remove the statue, though no alternative site for it could be found. “No matter what, I think that we’re going to insult somebody,” councilman Johnny Khamis told the San Jose Mercury News.
What about the parades?
Many cities that have eliminated Columbus Day itself have maintained one hallmark of the holiday: the parade. In Denver, for example, the Columbus Day Parade goes on, two days before the holiday that no longer bears Columbus’ name. But not without protests.
The city has a particularly volatile history of Columbus Day Parade protests. In 1992, Denver’s parade was cancelled mere minutes before it was scheduled to start as 500 protesters descended on its site. In 2007, 75 protesters were arrested outside the parade. Activists have also targeted Columbus Day parades in New York City and Pittsburgh.
Efforts to cancel or rebrand Columbus Day parades are typically resisted by cities’ Italian-American communities. The original promoters of the holiday, after all, were Italian immigrants of the early 20th century, who faced intense discrimination. Angelo Noce, a first-generation Italian immigrant in Denver, convinced state lawmakers to adopt Columbus Day in 1907; federal recognition of the holiday came in 1937, following lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. The Knights, a major Catholic fraternal organization, remain big Columbus Day boosters, not surprisingly.
Today, this fraught holiday gets a complicated schedule: A mixed assortment of schools and workplaces are closed. Most schools and local businesses are open, while federal and many state offices are shuttered. Post offices are closed, but not all banks, and it’s business as usual for the stock market and the NASDAQ.
Here in the District of Columbia, it’s a day off for many workers—including those at CityLab: Our offices are closed. Call back tomorrow.