A day after supporters applauded Chicago Public Schools’ decision to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day moving forward, outraged Italian-American City Council members said the change meant it was “time for war with CPS” and a local group vowed to challenge the move.
The decision to drop Columbus Day came in a split vote by the seven-member Board of Education, with members Dwayne Truss and Lucino Sotelo voting against changing the CPS calendar. The October holiday had previously been recognized as “Indigenous Peoples Day/Columbus Day.”
Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said at the meeting Wednesday that she believes “it’s the board’s responsibility to lead on this issue.”
“I believe in the transformative potential of culturally responsive education,” she said. “In addition to our Indigenous students in CPS, more than 80% of our students are the descendants of survivors of European settler colonialism. I think this is important for all of our school communities and I think it’s the right thing to do now.”
Of CPS’ 355,000 students, almost 11,000 are Native American/Alaskan, according to CPS figures.
Aldermen blast decision
The decision, however, outraged the City Council’s two Italian-American aldermen, who weren’t at the board meeting Wednesday.
Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) was so livid he was “ready to go to war,” as he put it.
“Go ahead and have your damn Indigenous Peoples Day. Just don’t have it on Columbus Day,” Sposato said Thursday.
“They’re taking Columbus Day away. I’m an Italian-American. He found America. They want to say he didn’t. They want to say he did bad things. You know how many people were on the three ships when he came here? Ninety. You think he could do the things they’re claiming that he did with 90 people?”
Sposato likened the effort to the movement sweeping the nation to tear down statues of U.S. Presidents and other historical figures who were slave owners.
He vowed to oppose it.
“It’s time for war with CPS about changing this, changing history, changing the day,” he said. “We’re gonna fight ‘em to change it back to what it was.”
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) called the change “absolutely ridiculous.”
“I just think it’s wrong,” he said. “ ... If you want to have Indigenous Peoples Day, great. I’ll celebrate it with you. Pick a day. But to have to get rid of Columbus Day for it is a slap in Italian-Americans’ faces.”
Napolitano compared the insult to the controversy in 2018 that followed the effort to change Balbo Drive — named for an Italian Air Force Marshal famous for making the first transatlantic crossing from Rome to Chicago but also helping to bring fascist Benito Mussolini to power — for journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells. Resistance led the City Council to name Congress Drive after Wells instead.
“Every couple of months, it seems like they pick a new [famous Italian] to get rid of,” he said. “I don’t understand what’s going on or why this is happening. To say that Italian-Americans haven’t contributed to the United States, to the city of Chicago, it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Although CPS alone sets its calendar, which is not subject to City Council review, the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, which is based in suburban Stone Park, said Thursday it mounted a campaign to reverse the action on behalf of the 500,000 Italian Americans in the Chicago area.
“Christopher Columbus is a symbol for the resilience of a people that have helped shape the cultural landscape of this great nation,” the group’s president, Sergio Giangrande, said in a statement. “The historical legacy of any individual is and should be subject to debate. That debate should not give license to the wholesale removal of a symbol ... that was a beacon of hope for millions of maligned Italians who helped create the beauty of this country.”
Move not ‘anti-Italian’
Sarah Dennis, one of several community supporters of the switch who spoke at the Board of Education meeting, said changing the holiday isn’t about offending Italian-Americans.
“This effort is in no way anti-Italian or in any way intended to bring any ill will to our Italian brothers and sisters who were wrongly discriminated against in previous decades,” Dennis said.
Another speaker, Miriam Bhimani, said “it means so much to honor and celebrate in school. Including Indigenous Peoples Day on the calendar helps push these discussions to action items.”
“As a CPS parent, I am beyond thrilled that my daughter will experience at school and learn about Native histories and current accomplishments.”