Goodbye, Columbus Day. CPS ends the holiday in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day — and parade organizers call it ‘a slap in the face’

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — Columbus Day will no longer be observed in Chicago Public Schools — and the group behind the city’s annual Columbus Day parade is already pushing to reverse that decision.

“This is a slap in the face of the more than 500,000 Italian Americans in Chicago, and the 135 million Italian Americans worldwide,” said Sergio Giangrande, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, in a statement provided to the Tribune.

Giangrande said the group “is challenging CPS’s decision and has mounted a campaign to reverse this action.”

Following similar moves in other school districts and cities, the Chicago Board of Education voted Wednesday to drop Columbus’ name from the October school holiday in favor of an observance of Indigenous Peoples Day.

CPS had been using both names in its calendar to refer to the day off.

“I’m asking for this amendment because I believe it’s the board’s responsibility to lead on this issue,” board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said. “While I know that CPS has been in talks and is working on responsive curriculum, I would like to accelerate the full transition to Indigenous Peoples Day.”

Todd-Breland said that as a historian, the name is both personally and professionally important to her, adding, “I believe in the transformative potential of culturally responsive education.”

Though no other board members spoke against the name change, two voted against it: Lucino Sotelo and Dwayne Truss both voted no. The other five board members, including President Miguel del Valle, backed the move.

Chicago Ald. Nick Sposato, of the 38th Ward on the Northwest Side, predicted backlash from the Italian American community, whose members have been among the most critical of the movement to stop celebrating Christopher Columbus. Sposato said removing Columbus from the holiday is erasing history and misguided, adding, “It’s time for war.”

Andrea Mitchell, a CPS parent who spoke in favor of the change in CPS on Wednesday, addressed that viewpoint, noting she herself is the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, so she empathizes with “the objections to renaming Columbus Day that are rooted in wanting to celebrate our heritage.”

But Mitchell said there are plenty of opportunities to celebrate Italian Americans who represent “core Chicago values,” ticking off a list of scientists, labor and civil rights leaders, artists and musicians who can be studied in schools for contributions to history they’ve made “without the erasure and decimation of the history and culture of others.”

In Chicago, Columbus still has a large presence, which includes Columbus Drive, the annual Columbus Day parade and prominent statues of him in Grant Park and in Little Italy.

“For Italian Americans, who endured horrific discrimination and continue to be the subject of stereotypical degradation in popular culture, Christopher Columbus is a symbol for the resilience of a people that have helped shape the cultural landscape of this great nation,” Giangrande said.

“This effort is in no way anti-Italian or in any way intended to bring any ill will to our Italian sisters and brothers who were wrongly discriminated against in previous decades,” said Sarah Dennis, a CPS alumna and adjunct professor of education who spoke in favor of the change.

Giangrande, however, pointed out many historical figures’ past actions have more recently come under scrutiny, and said anyone’s historical legacy should be up to debate.

“That debate should not give license to the wholesale removal of a symbol … that was a beacon of hope for millions of maligned Italians who helped create the beauty of this country,” he said.

The public debate over the name of the October holiday is not much newer than the tradition itself.

In 1892, a joint congressional resolution led President Benjamin Harrison to mark the “discovery of America by Columbus.” But Columbus Day only became a federal holiday in 1934, under President Franklin Roosevelt.

Celebrating Columbus was perceived as an affirmation for descendants of ethnic European immigrants, who faced discrimination and marginalization when they first arrived in the United States. Over the years, though, Native Americans gained recognition, with South Dakota changing Columbus Day to Native American Day in 1990. Berkeley, Calif., changed it to Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992 on the city’s calendar, and in the ensuing years many communities have followed, including Evanston.

Chicago still promotes the Columbus Day Parade, sponsored by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, which falls on Oct. 12 this year.

On last year’s holiday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted about the holiday’s history and how the conversation around it has changed over time.

“Columbus Day became a federally recognized holiday over eight decades ago to commemorate Christopher Columbus’ landing in what for him was the New World, as well as to celebrate our nation’s Italian-American heritage and its impact on the American experience,” Lightfoot tweeted. “ … Many across the nation have begun to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day — honoring the lives and cultures of the indigenous nations, acknowledging the devastation that resulted from Columbus’ arrival and subsequent European colonization, and celebrating the resiliency of indigenous communities throughout the country today.

“Here in Chicago,” she continued, “while we still formally recognize Columbus Day, we also celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, taking both as a challenge to clearly and honestly face our history, as we move forward together to create a more just future for ourselves, our city, and our society.”


(Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt contributed.)


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