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Baltimore City Council votes to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day

On July 1, 2020, people gathered for a "West Wednesday" protest near the Columbus Obelisk on Harford Road.
On July 1, 2020, people gathered for a "West Wednesday" protest near the Columbus Obelisk on Harford Road. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore City Council pushed to accelerate the passage of a bill that would rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, with lawmakers hoping it takes effect in time for next week’s holiday.

Whether the city meets this deadline now lies in the hands of Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. If he chooses to veto the legislation or let it become law without his signature, the change would not be official by Oct. 12. Young declined through a spokesman to comment Monday on his intentions.

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The council voted to speed up the legislative process — invoking a rule that allows a bill to advance from second reading to a final third reading on the same day — so that the city would be in a position to celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day this year, said Democratic Councilman John T. Bullock, the bill’s sponsor.

“This is a great time to move forward,” he said.

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While the council met virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, members of Indigenous Strong, an advocacy group representing Maryland’s Native Americans, rallied outside of City Hall to express their support for the change.

Jessica Dickerson, of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and an Indigenous Strong member, said she’s relieved and grateful that Baltimore “is now on the right side of history."

”We no longer have to be subject to Baltimore City celebrating someone who we describe as a murderer, someone who has taken so much from us," said Dickerson, 30.

Baltimore council members, like many people across the country, are calling for a reckoning over Columbus' legacy. The 15th-century Italian explorer was long credited in classrooms as a hero who discovered the Americas, rather than as a colonizer who violently enslaved native people.

Dozens of other cities and states — including Washington, D.C. — have taken the step of renaming the holiday that falls on the second Monday of October. Howard County made the change last month, with leaders there saying it was a step toward recognizing the harm done to Native Americans.

City Council President Brandon Scott, now the Democratic nominee for mayor, unsuccessfully attempted to have the holiday’s name altered in 2016. He said he was glad the council got it done Monday.

“This is something that should have been done and over with four years ago,” Scott said. “We have to celebrate history as it happened, and not as people imagine it happened."

He said the discussion is part of the country’s grappling over “the legacy of systemic racism and oppression.”

The council also voted Monday night to give final approval to legislation that would rename the Columbus Obelisk monument in Herring Run Park as the “Victims of Police Violence Monument.” It too now heads to the mayor’s desk.

Young also has not said whether or not he intends to sign this bill. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said he’s concerned that the monument would be near a memorial to fallen officers.

These two pieces of legislation are just the latest revolt over Columbus' place in history. This summer, protesters toppled a marble statue of Columbus in Little Italy and dumped it in the Inner Harbor.

The demonstrators who tore down the statue July 4 said they were demanding the removal of all monuments “honoring white supremacists, owners of enslaved people, perpetrators of genocide and colonizers.”

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Italian American Organizations United Inc., the group that gave the statue to Baltimore in 1984, fished the pieces back out of the water and has been working to restore it — though it won’t be returned to the city.

An officer of the group, Bill Martin, said he understands some people’s views on Columbus have changed, but that for many Italian immigrants, the explorer was a figure they could look up to when they moved to America.

Regarding the Columbus Day change, he said he wishes the City Council would instead dub the day a celebration of Italian heritage.

“We know we need to be flexible with the times,” he said.

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