Civil unrest in America brings new focus on Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day
Columbus Day has been celebrated by Americans – especially Italian Americans – for many, many years. But recently, the explorer’s reputation has changed, which has changed the meaning of the holiday for many people.
Columbus Day has become even more controversial within the last six months – since the death of George Floyd. Ever since Floyd’s death in May – and the anti-racists protests that followed – there has been a renewed focus on historical figures like Columbus, who are often associated with racism and the racist divide.
“They come out and demonstrated for Black Lives Matter. When that happened, it opened a lot of doors and that’s how we come to the question of statues,” says Junius Williams, the official historian for the City of Newark. “The first statues were the people who enslaved Black folks in the south before the Civil War. And from that, people looked at folks like Christopher Columbus who was the grandfather of all slavers.”
A Columbus statue was recently taken down in Newark’s Washington Park. It was one of many removed across New Jersey. Other statues were toppled or vandalized by protestors in other states. Many schools named after Columbus began to consider changing names.
“Slowly but surely, I think people are understanding a Christopher Columbus I didn’t understand when I was growing up,” Williams says.
But Italian American groups say that this narrative about Columbus is false and demand that the statues go back up. Williams says that he wonders if it is time to celebrate Italian American history and heritage differently.
“The Italian people have many other folks they can celebrate,” he says.
The Italian American One Voice Coalition says that not recognizing Columbus Day and taking down statues and monuments is a violation of the 14th Amendment. The group has entered federal litigation over the monument that was removed in West Orange.