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NH News

Concord City Council vote on Columbus Day brings discussions of Italian-Americans, history of colonization

An image of a statue of Christopher Columbus in Pittsburgh, covered by a sheet and red tape.
Gene J. Puskar
/
AP
A couple walk past the covered statue of Christopher Columbus in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.

Ahead of the Monday vote on whether to change a city ordinance to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Concord City Council has been hearing from members of the public, including some Italian-Americans.

Monday’s public hearing will be the first meeting where Concord residents can weigh in on the name change, which Ward 10 Councilor Zandra Rice Hawkins first proposed in September. At that meeting, some councilors suggested that Italian-Americans might view the change as an attack on their heritage.

Other New Hampshire municipalities, including nearby Hopkinton and Warner, already recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day in October, and last year the Concord School Board approved changing the name in the school calendar.

Rice Hawkins initially asked councilors to vote without holding a public hearing, saying that it was not the council’s role to debate the lived experiences of a marginalized group.

After a discussion among councilors and City Solicitor Jim Kennedy on the legal requirements of changing the holiday’s name, Rice Hawkins put forward a motion to hold a public hearing, which the council voted to do.

Joe Shoemaker said Rice Hawkins’ attempt to push through the ordinance change without public input led him to challenge her for the Ward 10 seat in a last-minute, and ultimately unsuccessful, write-in campaign last week.

The Italian-American story

Concord residents haven’t hesitated to let the councilors know their thoughts on the day named in honor of Christopher Columbus, an explorer born in what would later become Italy who sailed to the Caribbean under the Spanish flag in 1492.

Emails and letters entered into the public record ranged from objections to removing Columbus’ name from the city calendar to support of honoring Indigenous people with a city holiday.

A few representatives from national or out-of-state Italian-American groups urged the council to reject the change, including Matthew Guarnieri, founder of the Italian-American Defense League based in Connecticut. There were no Italian-American Concord residents who cited their heritage in written public testimony available Friday.

Guarnieri founded his organization this January, in response to the removal of a Christopher Columbus statute in New Haven in summer 2020, an act which he said brought him pain.

“Our primary focus is on Connecticut but decisions that are made in New Hampshire affect decisions that are made in Connecticut,” Guarnieri said. “Every time Columbus Day is replaced with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, that is painful for Italian-Americans that are not only from New Hampshire, or from Concord, but anywhere in this country.”

To Guarnieri, Columbus Day symbolizes the creation of a positive national identity for Italian-Americans, one that developed during a time of intense discrimination and violence against Italian immigrants and Catholics.

In 1892, one year after 11 Italian-Americans were lynched in New Orleans, President Benjamin Harrison called on Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934, after decades that saw the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan and anti-Catholic sentiment.

University of New Hampshire Professor Paula Salvio, herself an Italian-American, agrees that Columbus became a heroic symbol for Italians when they faced significant bias. But the education professor, who also studies Italy, says Italians should examine that history with a more critical eye.

“There’s this failure to know our history and a romanticizing of Italy and of Italians,” she said. “It prevents us from more deeply engaging with the achievements of the Italian-American people, plural.”

In an Oct. 11 talk at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Nashua, Salvio argued that fixating on the heroic myth of Columbus erases how elevating the holiday into a celebration of Italian identify worked to soothe Italians’ racial anxiety.

The Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People submitted a copy of her talk with their testimony to the Concord City Council in support of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

In the early 20th century, Northern Italians, who were generally lighter-skinned and of a higher social class than their southern counterparts, sought to increase Italian-American prestige and guard against racialized stereotypes – by aligning themselves with a popular figure in mainstream American culture.

“There’s a long history that Italian-Americans don’t understand about ourselves...we don’t want to face the way that identifying with Columbus was a way for groups to be accepted by Protestants,” she said.

Instead of boosting Columbus, Salvio thinks Italian-American groups in the United States should work to get lesser-known Italian history into states’ social studies curricula, find ways to honor other important Italian-American figures, and look closely at the racial consequences of modern Italian citizenship laws.

“Why don’t we celebrate all of the remarkable Italian-Americans that exist? Rather than just settling in on one mythic figure, Christopher Columbus,” Salvio said.

Hopkinton’s decision, three years ago

Hopkinton Town Moderator Sara Persechino said that when her town voted to institute Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2018, there was little public pushback.

As a select board member, Persechino had initially attempted to change the holiday’s name in 2015, and when that failed she tried again in 2018. “One of the big things that made a difference was hearing community support for that proposal,” she said.

The first public hearing only brought out one person, so another was held before the select board voted 5-0 to approve the change. Hopkinton’s school district soon followed suit.

“For me it's an important way to acknowledge the mass atrocities of our history and the contemporary struggles of Indigenous peoples face as a result of colonization, while honoring their contributions past and present to our country,” Persechino said.

This year, Hopkinton Town Meeting opened with a land acknowledgment, a formal statement recognizing the Indigenous groups who were stewards of the land where the town now sits.

A lot has changed since 2018 for Patricia Bass, a Concord resident who wrote to city council in favor of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The 90-year-old resident of Havenwood Heritage Heights is part of the Good Neighbor Study Group at the retirement home, which formed last year after the murder of George Floyd.

The study group has met virtually to attend lectures and read books about race and history, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

“I have become aware of what a terrible history we have of colonization of this country and our treatment of the Native Americans right from the beginning, and for years and years and years afterward. It did amount to a genocide I believe,” Bass said.

Over the last sixteen months, Bass has been surprised by how much history she didn’t know. Her newfound knowledge inspired her to reach out to the council, asking them to rename Columbus Day and join a national discussion about anti-Indigenous racism and colonization.

“I’m an old lady now and I’ve been telling the Thanksgiving story to my children and grandchildren for years now,” she said. “It’s got to be a different story now.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.