The American Crucible that Forged Columbus Day

By Michael Santo

Dear Honorable Mayor and Council Members of the City of Mount Vernon: 

Please consider the below letter and attachments as you address the issue of Columbus Day in your beautiful City.  It’s important that you have a full understanding of the history of Columbus and Columbus Day, especially in light of also celebrating another important American event:  Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

I have been special counsel to number of local and national Italian American groups in general, and, in particular, as it relates to our opposition to the many local governmental jurisdictions considering proclamations and other decisions about Columbus Day, Columbus statues, and the relationship of Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the latter event which we embrace and endorse wholeheartedly.  

I have testified around the county before major city committees, participated inmediations and have provided some detailed information and legal considerations about the above noted matters. 

Please feel free to contact me with any questions.


Get it right.  You have been faced with the decision to remove or alter a simple holiday that has existed for more than 130years. The act itself is uncomplicated; the state/city/town delegates the decision to a committee and they take a vote. The amount of time to remove the holiday is short and requires a one-page resolution.  It can be eliminated and you never have to hear about it again, despite the number ofyears it was prominently celebrated in your municipality. You are the City of Pueblo, Colorado, Chicago, Illinois, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Boston Massachusetts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Newark, New Jersey, Syracuse, NewYork, and so many cities and small communities around the nation.  

You are swept up in a wave of what appears to be an indignant movement by citizens who are ill-informed—some believe to their heart, others hellbent on a false cause or narrative—wanting to “correct” history and erase deeds and acts of a gentleman named Christofo Columbo. Otherwise known as Columbus, this man changed history like no other.  For more than 500 years he has been revered the world over.  He is the positive symbol of hundreds of millions of Italians, and other immigrants around the world.  

So, what is the point of not only removing Columbus Day, but swapping it out for another group’s day?  Isn’t that spiteful?  Doesn’t it go against the concepts and philosophies of “inclusiveness,” “diversity” and “co-existence”?Sounds like a bad lesson for our children, correct? How and why have you—with the fleeting power and control that you have for your term of office—been so quick to act without considering the FACTS? Have you considered for a moment that the current assertions and allegations against Columbus are wrong? Are you brave enough to review the bases for your own thoughts?  Don’t you feel that it’s your obligation and duty to your constituents to study history,hear from the “other side” with an open mind before you vote?  After all, the holiday started in 1892 by Proclamation by President Harrison, and became a national holiday by Proclamation in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  

Starting in about the 1980s, there was a movement to change the course of history by printing false accounts of Columbus, painting him in history books, classes,and popular charges as a murderer, rapist, and white supremist.  I don’t want to explain the motives in such a short note, but you have a duty and obligation to search for the truth and find out.

Let’s consider the purpose and origin of Columbus Day.  

Columbus Day actually evolved from a tragic and deadly episode in New Orleans, on March 14, 1891.  Hundreds of thousands of Italian Immigrants had made their way to New Orleans in the 1880s in order to seek employment and leave an economically decimated southern Italy.  The jobs were available due to the void of the freed slaves and the market for field workers.  The immigrants arrived on the shores of the Mississippi River, settling into the current French Quarters (then named “Little Palermo”).  

On October 15, 1890, the New Orleans Police Commissioner David Hennessy was shot in front of his home; he died hours later in a nearby hospital.  There were witnesses, but none could identify the possible four assassins. Nevertheless, and on the basis of the last whispers of Hennessy, who stated that the “Dagoes” did it, the police randomly rounded up hundreds of Italians on mere suspicion. Nineteen innocent Sicilian immigrants were falsely charged with his murder (FN 1: Articles on the lynching; the penultimate book on this topic is Vendetta, authored by Professor Richard Gambino).  

The first trial involved nine defendants, resulting in the mistrial of three and a not guilty verdict as to six on March 12, 1891. Judge Baker, who presided over the trial remanded the nine back to the nearby Orleans Prison for new, unsubstantiated charges of “lying in wait with the intent to commit murder.”

The city was in an uproar.  The prosecutors employed underhanded tactics to gain advantage, jurors had been illegally contacted, and the Judge did everything to help convict these men, to no avail.Organizers had a plan.

On that fateful and despicable day, March 14, 1891, City organizers—including businessmen, politicians, and lawyers alike—arranged for a “meeting” by taking out ads in the local papers.  People were invited to meet at a popular location not far from the prison, to “remedy the failure of justice in the Hennessy case” and were told to “[c]ome prepared for action.” The organizers convinced the thousands who showed to march to the Orleans Prison, where they broke in, tracked down, and lynched11 Italians.  The brutal details are in the accounts in the footnote [FN 1: Articles on the 1891 Lynching in New Orleans; 4: Victim Lists]

The account was printed around the nation and received with satisfaction and approval by such papers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. The acceptance didn’t stop there. Teddy Roosevelt, who was to become the Governor of New York a few years later, and eventually the 26th President of the United States, was quoted assaying that the horrific lynching was a “rather good thing.” Suffice it to remark that the status of Italians at this time was low, hateful, and degrading,noting that such adjectives including “sub human,” savages,” and other distasteful names [FN 5:  NY Times Editorial:  March 16, 1891; FN 6:  An Open Letter to the NY Times, May 21,2019]

The uproar from the trial, and the unscrupulous way that it was handled, became national and then international news. Italy pulled its Ambassador from the United States.  Investigations into the account were a farce.  The United States government intervened.

President Benjamin Harrison decided to use his office to acknowledge the contributions of Italians and Italian Americans with a Presidential Proclamation to honor a prominent Italian whose contributions were unquestioned; he selected Columbus.The first statue was placed at “The Circle,” and named Columbus Circle in New York City, where it was unveiled on October 13, 1892.

The intention was for a “one-time” holiday, but given the strong and popular acclamation for an annual observance, it later became a national holiday [FN3: Articles Connecting the Lynching with the adoption of Columbus Day]. Yet, there was another tragedy in America just a few short months before the New Orleans lynching, and it involved the Lakota Sioux (The Wounded Knee Massacre): 

You won’t find it in the public literature surrounding the first Columbus Day in 1892, but in the background lay two recent tragedies, one involving Native Americans, the other involving Italian Americans. The first tragedy was the massacre by U.S. troops of between 146 and 200 Lakota Sioux, including men, women and children, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890. Shooting began after a misunderstanding involving an elderly, deaf Sioux warrior who hadn’t heard and therefore did not understand that he was supposed to hand over his rifle to the U.S. Cavalry. The massacre at Wounded Knee marked the definitive end of Indian resistance in the Great Plains. The episode was immediately seen by the government as potentially troubling, although there was much popular sentiment against the Sioux. An inquiry was held, the soldiers were absolved,and some were awarded medals that Native Americans to this day are seeking to have rescinded.

See FN3:  What Columbus Day Really Means, AMERICAN SCHOLAR:  October 4, 2012, by William J. Connell.

What’s interesting, and discussed in the same above referenced article, is that Professor Connell poses the following with relation to these two tragedies and Columbus Day:

Whenever I hear of protests about the Columbus Day holiday—protests that tend to pit Native Americans against Italian Americans, I remember these tragedies that occurred so soon before the first Columbus Day holiday, and I shake my head. President Harrison did not allude to either of these sad episodes in his proclamation of the holiday, but the idea for the holiday involved a vision of an America that would get beyond the prejudice that had led to these deaths. Columbus Day was supposed to recognize the greatness of all of America’s people, but especially Italians and Native Americans.

In a private message to this author via email on August 28, 2020, Professor Connell notes his current views on the above:

I don’t believe [President Harrison] specifically had Wounded Knee in mind when he proclaimed a Columbus Day in 1892…Instead there was a series of problems and crises, including Wounded Knee that he must have thought required healing. ***But Columbus Day was NOT created in reparations for the New Orleans episode…In 1892 there would have been no support for an

“Italian” holiday.  It was a national holiday that included Italians. ***Harrison was hoping to spread calm and to bring everybody together, both in the October 1892 celebration [of Columbus Day] and in the Chicago 1893 Exposition. Native Americans figured on both occasions as symbolic of the New and Old coming together.  That was the idea behind Columbus Day…a national holiday, not the celebration of a single ethnicity.  The idea was to bring together the many peoples here and to celebrate the land.

President Benjamin Harrison’s “PROCLAIMATION 335—400TH Anniversary of the Discovery of America by Columbus” (FN11), states in substance:

[I, Benjamin Harrison, do hereby appoint Friday, October 21, 1892] as a general holiday for the people of the United States. On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.

So, it seems fair to say that President Harrison’s original thought and intention was maintained, but the association of a secular and broader view of “all peoples” transformed into a single ethic celebration by Italian Americans.

In 1890 and 1891 both Italians and American Indians were victimized. Both suffered, and were horribly treated.  Both were killed by American governments.  Now, both sides are at odds over what Columbus Day means and who Columbus was.  This historical context and the “evolution of the “day” adds a backdrop to and, I hope, an appreciation for what it means to be American.

An Apology

One Hundred Twenty-Eight years after the New Orleans lynching, and at the urging of the Italian American community, the brave Mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, offered to issue a Proclamation and present a formal apology for the complicity of the then Mayor, and others, in 1891. She presented the apology before a battery of press officials, descendants of the victims and a large contingency of Italian Americans who came from around the country, at the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans [FN 2:  Press Accounts].

Mayor Cantrell’s words and actions went a long way to help heal the societal wounds that has festered for all those years. [FN 9: VIDEOS of “Apology”].  Despite the length of time, the truth was revealed, an honest dialogue began, and this horrific piece of history can now be understood so that we can embrace the future on better terms.  This was a lesson for us as to today’s topicon Columbus.  

Columbus Today

What has come of Columbus?  For nearly 500 years, our schools and his accounts remained in good stead.  He was honored on an annual basis, not specifically as a great man, but as a favorable symbol for all Italian Americans who can now hold their heads high and say that we are part of the American success.  Our culture and history have become one with Columbus. While there are so many Italians to emulate, be proud of and honor, it remains Columbus as the man who symbolized the break from the days when we were treated with disdain, called names, shunned from society and yes, lynched(there were other lynching of Italians in other communicates, noting that New Orleans is the most tragic, not only because of the number, but the manner in which the city government was complicit).

What happened? In the 1980s, Columbus was, all of a sudden, no longer revered.  He was labelled a slave trader, colonizer,and responsible for a number of atrocities involving the indigenous peoples he encountered on his trips here from Europe. Did the historians and academia get it wrong for 500 years?  Did they miss something? No, not at all. 

The dysfunction in the historical evaluation of Columbus started with a few unscrupulous and unsavory “researchers” who wrote new “false narratives” and whose mis-quotes from “primary sources” rattled a generation of teachers and students.  The process called into question his character, methods and intentions, even to the point where people suggest that Columbus was a racist and white supremist.  

Do Italian Americans now have to defend what was correct for 500 years?  Does this new false narrative now suggest that anything and everything Columbus have to come down, be hidden, and statues be removed to be placed into a warehouse? ABSOLUTELY NOT…because these accusations are all FALSE.  They must be debunked and, in fact, have been debunked.

Recently,I attended a mediation process set up by the Mayor of Pueblo, Colorado, between two groups representatives of local Italian Americans, and local indigenous and Latino peoples.  The issue was what to do, if anything, with the Columbus Monument, which was erected in 1905 and placed on the National Register for Historic Places.  As is the case in other cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Pueblo is experiencing continual protests at the site of the statue. The police force is stressed. The cost to keep peace is expensive.  

The easy way out is to remove the “source” of the problem. But this is not surgery to remove cancer.  This is a decision about being fair to the citizens of the city. What to do? Other cities simply take down Columbus statues in the middle of the night.  There is really no thought there.  They succumb to the loud voices of the minority, and, in many cases, outside agitators whose bizarre goals include disruption and chaos.  

Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar set up the mediation process to hear both sides. Unfortunately, the process was sunk from the beginning. Why?  Both sides showed up.  The mediator was a professional and a Harvard Law graduate and handled the process in a sensible manner.  Much time went into the process.   What went wrong was the failure to learn and communicate. 

When the groups were together for the first time in a room, references and quotes spewing the false narratives about Columbus (racist, murderer, white supremist, colonizer, slave trader…) stopped any possible progress or communication.  How could anything go on from there?  It was impossible.  The mediation ended and the decision now rests with the Pueblo City government, although there is hope of further talks.  I truly hope that is the case,because communications are key.  The underlying issue about the real Columbus is a festering sore.

The issue is this:  Will those with the power and control to make the decision on the Columbus Monument actually take into account what I’ve just written?  Will they side with the mob mentality, the false narratives, and the current bizarre trend called “CANCEL CULTURE.”  If theydo, then what is protected?  What will last?  Will history repeat itself at this level?  

In other venues, the holiday was eliminated without much fanfare and in place of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a day well deserved and an honor way past due. The Italian American community not only agrees with this concept the vast majority would volunteer to help it happen.  The problem is that the current “movement” calls for a complete swap, noting that the day selected for Columbus Day has absolutely no meaning to Indigenous Peoples except to ensure that Columbus Day no longer exists.  

There’s something wrong here. Indigenous Peoples’ day already exists on one or more other dates that have a real underlying meaning to this group.  Why would this happen?  The reason is strong, but based on“historical quick-sand.”

My suggestion is really simple.  Consider the facts.  Read.  Study.  

False Narratives Must be Understood and Rejected 

I encourage America to get it right. [See FN 7: Columbus:  Academic Articles/Authors to Read; See FN8:  Campaigns in Favor of Columbus].  See and read how these false narratives have been debunked, and how the basis and reliance for the negativism over Columbus is really about JUNK HISTORY. Before any politician exercises his orher power and control—especially over a long-standing symbol of greatness—one has the duty and obligation to see and understand history andthe facts.

Additionally, consider going through the above referenced material.  I maintain that the articles, books and wirings will confirm the notes below:

  • Columbus’ main reason for the voyage was religious, i.e. to spread Christianity (See FN7:  Author Carol Delaney:  Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages that led to America. The author notes that the main goal of the voyage was to meet theGrand Khan of Chica in order to set up a trading post, the profits of which were to be used to finance a crusade to take back Jerusalem back from the Muslims.
  • Columbus was:
  • Not racist. See FN 7: Rafael, Columbus: THE HERO, at Chapter 13. The author notes that Columbus wrote highly of the “natives,” specifically making kind remarks and observations; however, he did note that there were differences.  In other words, some tribes were kind, others were warlike, and others were “wild in all respects,” including those which practiced cannibalism.
  • Not a cannibal. See FN 7:  Rafael, Columbus: THE HERO, at Chapter 15.
  • Not a slave-trader/holder. See FN 7:  Rafael, Columbus: THE HERO, at Chapter 22.  It is clear in history that slavery was common and practiced in the Americas (and the “Old Word”) before Columbus arrived, that it existed from the remotest antiquity even to present.  Queen Isabel was against slavery, allowing Columbus to enslave only native enemy combatants and criminals, which was a help to most of the native tribes by the way. 
  • Not a torturer who cut off the hands of the locals. See FN 7:  Rafael, Columbus: THE HERO, at Chapter 19.  There were instances of “wayward” Spaniards, who in disobedience of Columbus’ orders, did not maintain the peace and instead went on to steal and inflict injuries to natives.  Clearly not a directive of Columbus, these acts are associated with Columbus simply because he was there.  As the presence of Spaniards grew, Columbus’ control became weaker. 
  • Not a murderer. See FN 7:  Rafael, Columbus: THE HERO, at Chapter 18, 28.  There’s a complete lack of understanding in terms of Columbus having complete control over Governor Ovando, for example,who was later replaced by Spanish Kings. Columbus was cleared of all such charges. 
  • Not interested in making “servants” of the indigenous peoples. See FN 7: Rafael, Columbus: THE HERO, at Chapter 11.
  • The most used “quote”and likely the most ignorant of quotes attributable to Columbus was the following:
  • They were well-built with good bodies and handsome features…they do not bear arms…they have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…with 50 men, we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want.
  • First, Columbus never looked down on the Indians.  In fact, he praised the Indians for their culture.
  • Second, the quote was taken out of context (a painful and repetitive act by author Howard Zinn and others, and debunked by a myriad of respected historians and researchers (pages 63-66).
  • Third, the portion of the quote (“with fifty men we could subjugate them”) is not even part of the original paragraph, noting that that statement was made three days later from the first, and a reference to Queen Isabel that IF he had to fight the mall he would need is 50 men…and that never happen. It’s important to know that Queen Isabel was against slavery.
  • See also FN: 7, Dr.Mary Grabar:  Debunking Howard Zinn:  Exposing the Fake History that Turned a Generation Against America, August, 2019 (See further: ).

There is no doubt that Columbus behaved according to the tenets of the time. He did“take” some indigenous peoples with him, but not as slaves.  His motive was to teach them Christianity and offer them a better life. But these acts do not fit into the bent narrative of the revisionists such as Howard Zinn, James Loewen, Ward Churchill, and several other lesser knowns who repeated the same unfounded script.

Author Mary Grabar studied the above radials very closely and choose the one who had the biggest impact: Howard Zinn.  Mr. Zinn was a fanatical anarchist, whose book, A People’s History of the United States, was the genesis for everything that is anti-America.  An admirer of Stalin, Mao, and anything communist, Zinn seemingly went out of his way to fabricate, manipulate and present a false narrative of American history,including the life of Columbus. 

Professor Graybar provides a comprehensive critique of Howard Zinn’s works, which are filled with mistakes, lies, half-truths, and unfounded smears. Reasonable people, and at my behest and invitation here, you should be in her debt for calling Zinn out and providing a powerful, and timely take-down of this pseudo-culture. She reveals how Zinn’s shocking tales of severed hands, raped women and a lust for gold are all unfounded. His narrative about a genocidal Columbus captured the minds of the educational system and popular culture [Also, See FN 13:  Debunking “Top 5 Atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus”]

Zinn’s and the other works of fiction laid out a foundation for the violent,Marxist-inspired group ANTIFA, which declared a nationwide “Deface Columbus Day.” The transformation of this radial group, and those who profess an alliance to them, set up causes to replace or eliminate Columbus Day, oftentimes being swapped out with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Italian Americans have always stood with and for the Indigenous Peoples, with the full understanding about what and how they were decimated over a long period of time.  I honestly don’t believe that there is so much a gripe with Italian Americans by the Indigenous groups, rather than a sentiment that Columbus—as transformed over time with false narratives—became the face of evil and everything that was wrong from 1492 forward. But, their engagement with the elimination of Columbus Day and Columbus statues seemingly placates that overwhelming sense of victimhood.  That’s sad because both groups shared that victimhood status and there was never the animosity or ill will between the groups until lately. Italian Americans wish to end that. The best way to do that is with an understanding of the past, a willingness to cooperate and a desire to embrace each other moving forward. There’s still room for that.

The list of false narratives, misrepresentations and fake history by the above list of men is not new.  Whatever their goals,they have been studied, ridiculed and proven to be wrong by the legitimate and knowledgeable experts in the field of history. The problem is that their narratives linger in the minds of students who were subjugated to and indoctrinated by their works at high school and college levels.  

This need not happen here. It should not happen here.  As politicians, you owe a duty and obligation to do what is right and best for the people in your community.  No matter how large or small your municipality, your decisions will have significant impacts. Do you truly believe that you should act on the whims and representations of the few,without hearing from the “other side”? No, of course not.  

That’s why I have taken the time to prepare and present this letter with the historical details on Columbus Day, the importance of that day to Americans in general, and to Italians, in particular. Fanatics rewrite history to edit out the points of history they don’t like.  It’s an act of historic cleaning.  Our country should not be walking down that road. 


The silent majority is complicit in their complacency. I grant you that. Italian Americans have become successful.  That success made us lazy.  Not anymore.  If there’s one lesson here, is it that we are awake, we vote, and we will not stand for what we see is a multitude of civil rights violations taking place in our cities and communities. 

We, too, have been “victimized” as a “new” immigrant wave of people in the past;we, too, have suffered the indifference and maligned attitude as immigrants;and, we, too, want to celebrate and recognize our historical and cultural roots, while, at the same time, embrace our new found status of AMERICANS.  We also want to embrace all of our fellow Americans so we practice that acceptance and respect, but we also have earned the responsive acceptance and respect. We are finding that that has been lacking.  We trust that you will understand now and approach with caution any decisions which may cause us harm and disrespect.

It is a big mistake, and a dangerous precedent, to remove one statue of Columbus.  Its tantamount to hysteria, a surrender to mob mentality and an exercise in ignorance.  Which statue is next? 

It is a big mistake, and a dangerous precedent, to remove or disparage Columbus Day.  Its tantamount to hysteria, a surrender to mob mentality and an exercise in ignorance.  Which is next? 

As restoration to “normalcy” is already happening. The Republican National Committee’s Resolution Committee recently adopted a RESOLUTION TO CONSERVE HISTORY AND COMBAT PREJUDICE—CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, in which the documents specifically recognize the following: 

  • Columbus’ contributions and courage
  • Support the celebration of his unparalleled importance for Americans facing anti-Italian and anti-Catholic prejudice
  • Affirms the need to take a strong position in support of our founding ideas in solidarity…by defending Columbus Day as a federal holiday. 


I’ve presented this letter in a format and offered an extensive and deep footnote section on purpose.  I want you to have the ability to click to the sites in order to afford you the quick ability to learn and research before you make a decision because I WANT AMERICA TO GET IT RIGHT.  I WANT MOUNT VERNON TO GET IT RIGHT.

Most Sincerely,

Michael A. Santo

Special Counsel:  National Columbus Educational Foundation (NCEF)

Member: Columbus Citizens Foundation (CCF)

Member: Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA)

Former General Counsel:  NY State Order Sons & Daughters of Italy in America (OSDIA)

Former Special Counsel:  NY State Commission for Social Justice, OSDIA




    What Columbus Day Really Means

    The Lynching That Gave Us Columbus Day