A Baltimore City Council proposal to strip Christopher Columbus of his annual holiday and rename the day for indigenous people has sparked a community debate.
Students at City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore petitioned the council to rename the holiday. They said they were tired of "mistruths" about the controversial Italian explorer, who did not discover the land now known as the United States of America but is linked to the start of the transatlantic slave trade.
Yet in places such as Little Italy, the day is less about Columbus and more about celebrating Italian-Americans, their culture and their efforts to assimilate over generations.
The council plans to take a final vote on the legislation Dec. 5. Joseph Benjamin Gardella hopes officials first stop to consider what might be lost.
"Little Italys are starting to thin out in cities across the country. I say give this to them, and let's have a conversation," Gardella said as he filled orders behind the counter at his Little Italy restaurant, Joe Benny's. "I don't think there's been enough talk yet."
Outside the restaurant at South High and Fawn streets, "126th Columbus Celebration" is emblazoned on pavement nearby. Gardella said the annual parade and festivities help keep the neighborhood vibrant.
Councilman Brandon Scott — who filed the bill after the students requested it — tried to soften the blow by rebranding the holiday as "Indigenous Peoples' and Italian-Americans' Day." The council endorsed the compromise, voting 12-2 this month to give the bill preliminary approval.
"It celebrates both," Scott said. "It does not disenfranchise anyone or have the indigenous community and others be worried about us celebrating someone who destroyed their culture, from their point of view.
"It also does not say the Italian-American community does not matter. It is compromise down the middle."
A national movement to change the holiday has been underway for nearly 30 years. Albuquerque, N.M., Portland, Ore., and St. Paul, Minn., are among the cities that have exchanged Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples' Day. South Dakota celebrates Native Americans' Day, and Hawaii recognizes the holiday as Discoverers' Day.
Berkeley, Calif., was among the first to make the change, swapping out Columbus Day in 1992.
Columbus landed on an island in the Bahamas in 1492. He later explored other Caribbean islands and Central America. Historians say Columbus reached the New World on Oct. 12, although he never arrived at the land that is now the United States.
The 15th-century Italian explorer is tied to the spread of disease, the initiation of the transatlantic slave trade and to violent acts committed against people native to the lands he searched.
Columbus Day was first designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937.
Peter French, a City Neighbors social studies teacher, said his sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students were moved to action after reading diary entries written by Columbus and his contemporaries. The students evaluated other holidays named for individuals or groups — such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day — and felt the explorer did not deserve the same honor.
French, who has taught in Baltimore for 24 years, said the students felt it was "time to recognize and consider the truth, instead of continuing a story that is simply not true."
John Curl, a member of a committee that considered the name change in Berkeley, said commemorating indigenous people allows a community to spotlight respect for the Earth. He said it also teaches people how to live in harmony with the natural world rather than celebrate a culture that "decided to go somewhere else and take over other peoples' land and resources."
"Columbus was really not a role model," Curl said. "The Italian-American community has Galileo and da Vinci — they don't need Columbus."
Fighting to preserve the traditional observance of Columbus Day is the National Italian American Foundation. John M. Viola is the organization's president.
"The celebration of Columbus Day for Italian-Americans signifies the enormous pride we share for our rich Italian culture, heritage and outstanding achievements," Viola said in a statement released in April. The Colorado legislature had just rejected an effort to abolish the holiday in that state.
"It's a day when we honor those who have come before us — our parents and grandparents. They worked to make America great. … We believe in celebrating all the wonderful cultures that make America the greatest nation on Earth, but not celebrating one at the expense of the other."
Under Scott's bill, the name of the holiday would change on all official city communications and publications. It defines indigenous peoples as "the many peoples inhabiting North America before its colonization by European settlers."
Scott said the students told him "they were tired of themselves and their generation being told mistruths" about Columbus.
"This is important that we can understand each other and each other's points of views and meet somewhere in the middle so we can operate as a great society," Scott said.
Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Little Italy and other Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods, urged the council to give the public more time to weigh in on the change. He noted the bill was introduced in late October.
"I would hope the council would not rush through this piece of legislation but would take it to the next term," Kraft said before the council's recent vote. "The objective can ultimately be accomplished, but there should be sufficient time to allow everyone's voice to be heard before such a serious and dramatic change is made."
Councilman Carl Stokes spoke up from his seat, saying: "We've been waiting 600 years."
If the bill does not pass at the council's Dec. 5 meeting, the legislation will have to be reintroduced after the new council is sworn in Dec. 8.
Kraft voted against the bill, as did Councilman Eric T. Costello. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke abstained.
Cyd Wolf is pushing for the council to reconsider before taking the final vote. She owns a Little Italy restaurant and cabaret space, Germano'sPiattini, with her husband, GermanoFabiani. The couple also co-founded Baltimore's Madonnari Arts Festival in collaboration with the organizers of the Columbus parade.
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Wolf and others say Columbus Day is much more than a celebration of the explorer, and that rebranding the day is an attempt to rewrite history.
Wolf said the proposal suggests that the "atrocities experienced by the Native Americans during colonialism were exclusive to the Italians — which is not the case. The British, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese all came and conquered."
Plans are underway to hold a symposium in Little Italy next October to discuss the controversy surrounding Columbus, Wolf said. She and others want the council to add a day to honor indigenous people or give them dual recognition with Columbus on the second Monday in October.
"Ours is a colonial past: Who we are today and who we will be tomorrow demonstrates our growth as a community," Wolf said.
"It baffles me that anyone can think it is right or necessary to recognize one ethnic group by usurping an honored historic holiday of another ethnic group."