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Columbus Day: A Fraught Celebration


Today is 9 October and Spain, Italy, some Latin-American countries, and the United States are all celebrating Columbus Day.

The holiday was originally instituted to commemorate the deaths of 11 Italian immigrants to the US. When New Orleans police chief David Hennessy was shot and killed in 1891, his dying words implicated local Italian Americans—then a frequently despised immigrant group. Contemporary news media predictably fanned the flames. Police rounded up a number of Italian Americans, but a subsequent trial cleared most of their names. Enraged at the perceived injustice—which some attributed to mafia interference—a mob stormed the jail, shooting some prisoners, and tearing others apart and hanging some of the corpses. Shame over the incident, coupled with international pressure, led President Benjamin Harrison to proclaim a new holiday to honor the contributions of Italian Americans. The first Columbus Day was celebrated in 1892. It became a national holiday in 1937. The idea was to highlight the idea that Italian immigrants were an integral part of the fabric of America, rather than dangerous foreigners, and that their story was woven into the origins of the nation itself—since, after all, there would have been no United States had Columbus not found his way to the Americas…

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