South San Francisco, CA October 7, 2021
We have witnessed tremendous changes in the past few years, many that have taken a strike at historical events and people in the United States, which in the past had been held in esteem. As Columbus Day approaches we may notice it is no longer listed on many calendars and in some places has been replaced completely by newer events – Indigenous People’s Day or the month (9/15-10/15) dedicated to Latinx. Yet there is something to learn from every group who immigrated to our Country, and it helps us to appreciate the struggles most immigrants experience in a foreign land, including our Italian brothers and sisters.
This article in the Democracy Journal from 2016 brings a nuanced approach to how and why Columbus Day was celebrated and the changes through the years. At times it can be too easy to use a broad view to accept or decline a point of view, rather than understand the subtleties that may be there if critical thinking is used.
‘Columbus brought about devastation for Native Americans. But the holiday is about more than the man himself—it’s also about the struggle of generations of Italian Americans.’
William J Connell writes in his article and continues ‘In the 1890s, Italian American anarchists condemned Columbus in their newspapers as “a pirate and an adventurer” and as a man “indifferent to massacre” who set the stage for “the martyrdom of the negroes in the States of the South” and “the prejudices and hatreds of race.”’
It is true, everyone here has roots somewhere else, even our ‘indigenous peoples’ have come from other lands. We are all just visitors to this place, we all have our stories, and we do well to learn of each other’s struggles and victories. As Connell points out-
‘As a professional historian, I think the “Columbus Discussion” is a good thing. It reminds us—and our students—that history is messy. American history, in particular, is continually confronting what might be termed our republic’s two “original sins”—the treatment of indigenous peoples and the institution of slavery. Both are very much present in the biography of Columbus, and the fact that he was an Italian who sailed for Spain and explored the Caribbean hardly pardons European North Americans from following him in committing similar sins. If anything, it confirms that he should be seen as “one of us”—and the first one at that—for better and for worse.’
Yes, history is messy and it does not benefit us to view yesteryears through the lens of today with a simple good or bad label. Historical markings and events allow us to see the progressive changes we have made as a country, to continually examine and redefine where we are today, and our path forward to tomorrow.
There is a great truth in Connell’s words to consider the original ‘spirit’ of Columbus Day –
‘I think it is, therefore, useful to consider the spirit of Columbus Day in 1892, when Benjamin Harrison, an underrated and too often forgotten one-termer of a President, declared a nationwide celebration of Columbus on the 400th anniversary of his initial voyage. This happened at a time when Italian Americans were near the bottom rung in American society. Just prior, for example, in 1891 in New Orleans, there had been a mass lynching of eleven Italians despite their acquittal in a recent murder trial. The lynching was treated favorably by the New York Times and it was endorsed in a private letter by Theodore Roosevelt, although Harrison thought it a terrible miscarriage of justice.’
The United States has been observing Columbus Day for over 120 years, it is a tradition that offers teaching moments if one looks deep enough. Do read the full article by Connell CLICK HERE and let his parting words give another perspective.
The recognition of past tragedies need not be only mournful, however. They can be saluted in ways that involve humor, joy that the worst is (hopefully) over, and recognition that we are now a stronger people thanks to those who worked so hard to bring us together in this great country.
While Italian immigrants brought much to our country, they also have had an impact locally and an interesting and educational way to explore some of the people is by visiting the Italian Cemetry in Colma, learn more on its website HERE.
South San Francisco Italian American Citizen’s Club encouraged members to learn the ways of their new country and held out membership to those who had become American citizens
South San Francisco has a rich history of Italian immigrants and their story has been chronicled by the Italian American Citizen’s Club (IACC) which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016. Italian immigrants were not, for the most part, welcomed with open arms, there was much discrimination.
They were hired to work at lower wages. They had no benefits. And newspapers began writing negative articles, with politicians from nearby cities commenting that South San Francisco Italians were making and selling wine against the laws of prohibition. Prejudice was beginning to lift its ugly head and become widespread.
The local history is interesting and more can be found in the 4-part series we have shared in the past:
The first article (CLICK HERE) dealt with the forming of the South San Francisco Italian American Citizens Club on December 7th, 1916 and the festivities that would be celebrated this year.
The second article (CLICK HERE) focused on the hardships and the prejudices suffered by Italians, not only throughout the country, but also here in our immediate Bay Area cities.
The third article (CLICK HERE) shared how the Italian Americans continued helping each other to become active citizens in their new country; finding jobs, becoming involved in the political arena, and contributing to their communities, and their military service for the U.S.A.
The fourth and final article (CLICK HERE) continues to share how Italian Americans worked to fulfill the dream of becoming Americans, and their gift to the City of South San Francisco – the George Washington bust on City Hall grounds.
Another interesting read ‘Italian Americans and the Impact of Their Five Centuries of History in America‘ offers an interview of William Connell and Stanislao Pugliese regarding their book ‘Storia degli italoamericano‘ and can be found CLICK HERE This covers much of the forgotten history which we would do well to remember today, including fascism in Italy, and why many Italian Americans rallied behind Mussolini and the Blackshirts.
“We think Italian Americans have a history that should generate serious interest on the part of anyone who cares about the history of the United States, of Italy, of immigration, of globalization… Contrary to what was previously thought, we know Italian migrants came from a rich tradition of social and political activism… I think it’s a shame that “nativism” has so taken hold of many Italian Americans… It is all too obvious that Italian Americans don’t know – or have forgotten – their own history as the descendants of immigrants…” –
Today, there are still festivals in San Francisco, among other places, that celebrate Italian Heritage and Columbus Day. The public is invited to join in the festivities. To see the full program CLICK HERE.
** UPDATE – thanks to Frank McAuley, SSF Sister Cities Association, for sharing this information:
The Town of Colma celebrates October 2021 as Italian Heritage Month
And thank you to Colma Councilmember John Goodman for the flyer and photo below