CPS dropping Columbus Day is a slap in the face of Italian Americans

Columbus set in motion the trajectory of history as we know it by linking two worlds together. We have great reason to celebrate this.

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A statue of Christopher Columbus in Washington, DC.

A statue of Christopher Columbus in Washington, DC.

Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Chicago Public School Board voted late Wednesday to replace Columbus Day on its official school calendar with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” In doing so, the board demonstrated that in order to uplift one ethnic community, it was willing to step on the back of another.

The move is a slap in the face to Chicago’s Italian-American Community. But moreover, it is an affront to all immigrant communities that have long celebrated Columbus Day as an homage to this land’s first immigrant.

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Without question, a recognition for Native-American peoples is long overdue. They’ve long suffered mistreatment at the hands of migrating settlers. To assert that Columbus was uniquely and directly responsible for these atrocities, however, is simply unsupported by the historical record, but rather a result of the efforts of a recent wave of revisionism to fit a favored narrative.

A brief interlude:

In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the new world, growing discontent began to fester over the celebration the quincentenary among Native American community leaders. An olive branch was extended by the late Dominic DiFrisco, the longtime voice of Chicago’s Columbus Day Parade.

“No longer shall we employ the use of the word ‘discovered’ in referring to Columbus’ voyages. This land was theirs first, after all,” DiFrisco said, referring to Native Americans.

Our Native-American brothers and sisters then were invited to lead the parade that year and re-invited every year since to play an integral part in it. Just like that, a planned protest turned into a march of comradery.

It was such a remarkable occurrence, in fact, that a delegation of Native-American and Italian-American community leaders were invited to Italy, as guests of the Italian Government. During the visit, the Italian Parliament bestowed honorary citizenship upon the Native-Americans and they were granted a private audience with Pope John Paul II.

“The pope put his arm around James Yellowbank’s shoulder and said, “Sono con voi,’” DiFrisco recalled. “When I told him it meant ‘I am with you,’ they all wept.”

Later, they laughed, feasted and drank wine in a Roman piazza.

“We acknowledged them as the original Americans and welcomed them to our table as brothers and sisters. We all came to understand that there was more that united than separated us,” DiFrisco said. “To be frank, I think we just hit it off.”

DiFrisco and the original architects of the local protest movement, James Yellowbank and Sam Keahna remained lifelong friends, with Keahna even bestowing an eagle feather upon DiFrisco, making him an honorary member of his tribe. It is a beautiful story about humanity and the coming together to reach compromise, instead of tearing each other down.

CPS has taken a different approach.

In 2017, the Illinois Legislature, by a unanimous vote and subsequently signed into law by the governor, passed House Bill 0132, designating Indigenous Peoples’ Day as the last Monday in September and leaving Columbus Day intact as the second Monday in October. The United States government and the Chicago City Council still recognize Columbus Day as the second Monday of October as well.

The unelected, and therefore minimally accountable to the public, CPS board decided that instead of tending to the needs that affect the everyday lives of its 355,000 students, it would prefer to grab headlines. Rather than deferring to the will of the unanimous body of state lawmakers and the governor, it determined its own judgment on the matter should usurp that of its chartering body.

Do they, or should they, even have the authority to do so? With that authority follows the frightening question of what might be next.

President’s Day? Cancel it, CPS could say, because George Washington owned slaves. Martin Luther King Jr Day? Cancel it, CPS could say, because the great Dr. King was accused of personal misgivings.

As ridiculous as these propositions may sound, we have always recognized that all human beings are inherently flawed, but we celebrate them for their extraordinary accomplishments.

What’s worse, due process was left at the doorstep of the Wednesday afternoon CPS board meeting. No notice or an opportunity to be heard was afforded to those of us that feel we have been stripped of a part of our heritage.

Yes, Columbus did not ‘discover’ America, but he led the first documented voyages to the New World, laying the foundation for mass waves of immigration from Europe to this sweet land of liberty for the ensuing centuries. In doing so, Columbus set in motion the trajectory of history as we know it by inextricably linking two worlds together. We have great reason to celebrate this and all of those who followed in Columbus’ bravery and footsteps by taking a giant leap to an unknown world in search of something new.

The Italian-American Community has never been so united. We will ensure our voices are heard. We will petition our friends and allies in public office, as well as all of the civic and community leaders within reach, to take a stand in urging the CPS Board to revisit this decision.

The contributions of Italian-Americans to our country, and our city, are not limited to our pizza, our pasta, our back-breaking labor and our unconditional love and passion. For a community that has given so much, we only ask that we keep our beloved day of joy and celebration.

Pasquale Dominic Gianni is an executive board member in Chicago of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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