The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) supports Christopher Columbus Day and opposes public campaigns that advocate for its elimination as a federal holiday. As an organization devoted to the promotion and preservation of Italian American heritage, we support unequivocally keeping Columbus Day as a federal holiday. We believe that Columbus’s courageous voyage was the catalyst that initiated over 500 years of immigration to the Americas by people from every corner of the earth who were seeking a better life for their families.
The intent and spirit of Columbus Day was to evoke national pride for our young nation and the roots of the holiday can be traced back to the 18th century. After gaining independence, America was searching for symbols that set its identity apart from Europe’s. The first reported Columbus Day celebration was held in New York in October 1792 to mark the tricentennial of his voyage.
When Columbus Day was founded in 1937, the federal holiday provided a sense of dignity and self worth in light of the hostility and discrimination many Italian immigrants, Italians Americans, and Catholics (more broadly) faced. Less than five decades before the holiday’s establishment, 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans, the biggest mass lynching in U.S. history.
NIAF condemns the vandalization of Columbus statues.
NIAF feels strongly that as citizens, we should not attempt to deny America’s history, nor should we try to erase it. This nation provides ample opportunity to have a reasonable debate in the public square over various aspects of a historic figure’s legacy. NIAF does not blindly uphold any single figure as the representative of all things Italian American, since all individuals are flawed, and all monuments represent just a snapshot of our history, now measured against 21st-century sensibilities.
In our view, it is unfair to apply today’s political norms on a historical figure from 500 years ago. If the practice of applying today’s political norms to our Founding Fathers was accepted, there would be a strong argument to denigrate some of the most important figures in American history. Many monuments to Franklin Roosevelt stand today, although he allowed Japanese Americans and Italian Americans to be interned during World War II, and we as an ethnic group are not demanding that his statues be destroyed. Nor are we tearing down tributes to Theodore Roosevelt, who, in 1891, after 11 falsely accused Sicilian Americans were murdered in the largest mass lynching in American history, wrote that he thought the event was “a rather good thing.”
Opposition to the holiday has also led to vandalism to Columbus statues commerorating his achievement. In 2017, Baltimore’s Christopher Columbus monument, believed to be the first erected to the Italian explorer in America, was vandalized. Last year, there were also public calls to remove the iconic statue from New York’s Columbus Circle. In New York that same year, Italian Americans witnessed the Columbus statue in Yonkers be unceremoniously decapitated. For large numbers of individuals in the Italian American community, Columbus, and Columbus Day, represent an opportunity to celebrate our collective contributions to this country.
The National Italian American Foundation strongly condemns the defacing of historical monuments and expects elected officials and law enforcement to protect our public memorials from further damage so that a true conversation on their place in modern society can be organized. We believe Christopher Columbus properly represents the values of discovery and risk that are at the heart of the American dream.
Despite the advent of Indigenous People’s Day, NIAF is not opposed to the establishment of such a holiday. Native Americans, like Italian Americans, should have the right to celebrate and educate others about their history and culture. We believe that to repeal Columbus Day as a federal holiday, which is celebrated by over 20 million Italian Americans, only to replace it by another holiday celebrated by another ethnic group, would be culturally insensitive.
NIAF remains a strong and vigorous advocate for the continuation of Columbus Day as a federal holiday. Where individuals seek to establish an “Indigenous People’s Day,” we suggest this effort can be undertaken with civility and respect for other people’s heritage and memorials. NIAF’s view is that two such holidays can peacefully coexist without words of disparagement or physical acts of vandalism.
The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to preserving, promoting and protecting the Italian American heritage and culture. To learn more about the Foundation and become a member, please visit www.niaf.org.
 Blakemore, Erin. “The Grisly Story of America’s Largest Lynching.” History.com. https://www.history.com/news/the-grisly-story-of-americas-largest-lynching (October 1, 2018).