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Marsha Mercer column: Columbus Day a relic from our political past
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Columbus Day

Marsha Mercer column: Columbus Day a relic from our political past

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Columbus Day

From May 1892, a poster marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage and included other American themes and presidents — including a “space reserved for next president” elected later that year. It wasn’t a second term for Benjamin Harrison.

If you have this upcoming Monday off from work, thank 19th-century American politics.

The Columbus Day holiday has its roots in the presidential campaign of 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison was running for re-election.

To win the votes of the many new Catholic and Italian immigrants who were being discriminated against, he proposed a holiday honoring Christopher Columbus, an Italian Catholic.

Harrison then signed a proclamation, calling the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World on Oct. 12 a day to “let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the four completed centuries of American life.”

Harrison also praised Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.”

Unfortunately for Harrison, Grover Cleveland won the 1892 presidential contest.

But the Columbus Day holiday caught on. The Knights of Columbus and other fraternal groups pushed states to recognize the holiday, and President Franklin Roosevelt made Oct. 12 a national holiday in 1934.

It became a federal holiday in 1968, meaning all federal offices are closed, and it moved to the second Monday in October in 1971.

Columbus was looking for a trade route to Asia from Europe when his fleet of ships reached the Caribbean. Thinking he had reached the East Indies, he called the natives Indians, but he had landed in the Bahamas and never set foot on what would become the United States.

He didn’t “discover” America, because the land already was inhabited by native peoples with a vibrant culture and history. The Europeans brought disease, genocide, rape, slavery, forced conversion to Catholicism and exploitation to the New World.

Since the 1970s, emotions have run strong on both sides of the Columbus controversy. Critics argue that a holiday honoring Columbus is inappropriate at best, and many localities have abolished Columbus Day or renamed it.

Supporters of Columbus and his holiday argue that the changes denigrate the role of Italian Americans and all immigrants in creating American society.

As Confederate monuments forced us to confront hard truths about historical figures, so too Columbus Day demands we reassess another flawed hero. Statues of Columbus also were toppled in several cities last year.

The federal government still celebrates Columbus every October, but about half the states, the District of Columbia and scores of cities skip the holiday entirely or call it something else, such as Indigenous Peoples Day. Where cities and states put the apostrophe in “Peoples” varies.

Columbus, Ohio, the largest city named for Columbus, called off its Columbus Day holiday and festivities in 2018 and now closes on Veterans Day instead.

In Virginia, the localities of Richmond, Charlottesville, Falls Church and Alexandria recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. With 11 Native American tribes, the state still officially calls the second Monday in October the Columbus and Victory in Yorktown Day, a state holiday.

Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam declared the first Indigenous Peoples Day in Virginia, “a day to honor the rich culture and recognize the contributions of Indigenous people and Native Americans across the commonwealth.” He recognized Oct. 11 this year the same way.

Hawaii has Discoverers’ Day, honoring Polynesian explorers, and Colorado last year replaced Columbus Day with a new holiday on the first Monday in October: Cabrini Day.

It honors Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian immigrant and naturalized citizen who founded more than 60 schools, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions first in Denver, and then throughout the United States, and South and Central America. She was canonized a saint by Pope Pius XII in 1946.

Columbus was no saint, and he's the only individual besides George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. we honor with a federal holiday. The third Monday in February still is officially Washington’s Birthday, not Presidents Day.

Today we understand Indigenous people suffered greatly at the hands of Columbus and throughout the forming of the United States. They were lied to, persecuted and removed from their lands.

For years, some in Congress have sought to repeal Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day. Benjamin Harrison’s political ploy did not work for him, and it doesn’t reflect who we are today. It’s time to move on.

Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. Contact her at: marsha.mercer@yahoo.com

© 2021, Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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