Christopher Columbus – An Italian Inspiration

Christopher Columbus is a symbol of hope for Italian-Americans. A symbol that recalls the horrors of discrimination and bigotry against Italians and their fight to be accepted.

For without him, we’re all living in Europe and Asia and thinking the world is flat. He literally brought humanity together by discovering the “other half” of the planet – when no one on either side believed the other existed.

The first dedication to Columbus came in 1791 with the naming of the District of Columbia. Shortly after, monuments started to appear – the first was an obelisk, a gift from France to Maryland in 1792. Since then, monuments and statues have been erected and places have been named in his honor around the world.

The Columbus statue in Brooklyn, NY was erected in 1867 and I believe might be the first “statue” of the famed explorer.

My hometown of Scranton erected its monument in 1892, the same year was when many statues were established around the world, commemorating the 400th Anniversary of his discovery.

The Italian-America Society in Scranton was largely responsible for its establishment that sits on Courthouse Square in the county seat.

What many don’t understand is that this was also a time when Italian-Americans were fighting severe anti-Italian discrimination throughout the country. A year earlier, a group of Italians were murdered in New Orleans by an angry mob in what is known as “America’s largest lynching”.

Side note: I’ve come to understand that a “Lynch Mob” means any form of “extrajudicial killing” by a mob of vigilantes. While most Lynch Mobs used hanging as their preferred execution method, clubbing, stoning and shooting were among the other “acceptable” forms of killing.

At the time, over 20,000 Italians called New Orleans home. The French Quarter even earned the nickname “Little Palermo” after the Sicilian city in which many immigrants left behind. Italians were often the target of discrimination and the men that were murdered were “believed” to have been involved in the murder of a police chief.

Local newspapers demanded justice and declared the men guilty even before the trial. Article after article convicted the Italians and stoked anger, fear and division in the community.

Of the nineteen men that were detained, nine were put on trial first. After the trial, six were declared innocent and three others were ruled a mistrial.

The newspapers maintained their narrative. The system failed the Chief and the people of New Orleans. One paper wrote “Rise, people of New Orleans” in a call to arms. Others called out the jury as being dishonest and headlines blared “when the ministers of the law fails” and “weakness of the authorities”. You can clearly see how the public would be enraged.

One paper ran a piece on their front page calling all citizens to a “mass meeting” to “remedy the failure of justice” and “come prepared for action”. Notice that not a single Italian was on the “committee”.

The mass meeting turned to an angry mob seeking vigilante justice. The mob stormed the prison where all nineteen men were being held – some even after their acquittals.

In all, eleven men were murdered – either hanged, shot, or beat to death by the mob.

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The newspapers went into great detail of how each of the men were hunted and captured. With little to no pushback from any of the authorities guarding the prison, the mob methodically found their men and executed them one by one. Then they wrote in gory detail of their last moments alive – writings that would rival any of the worst imaginable movie scenes.

“Avenged” read the headlines. When it was over, they left peacefully and all went about their lives.

In the end, two men were hanged and shot on the street. Their lifeless bodies remaining in plain site for all to see for hours. The other men were beaten or shot to death inside the prison.

After the “lynching”, the District Attorney set the eight remaining survivors free by dropping all charges against them.

Many Italian immigrants came from the very poor southern portion of the country. Those from Southern Italy were not even considered part of the “white” race. The US even had a distinction on their census to separate Northern Italians from Southern Italians.

The Italian-American community continued their fight for equal rights and wanted to be known as hard-working American Citizens. They tried to assimilate into the American culture and were working blue-collar jobs in the mines in the north and on the farms in the south, while others owned fruit stands or grocery stores.

Italians were fighting to fit in. They took pride in Columbus and used him as a figure to rally around in different communities. Italian-American communities around the country erected statues or monuments in Columbus’ honor. He remains to this day a point of pride among the Italian-American Community.

So Columbus means more to them (and me) than just “discovering” America. He represents the struggle to be accepted. The struggle to survive and thrive in a new community. The struggle in the fight against racism and discrimination.

Sure, there were Native Americans and Indigenous People roaming the land when he arrived, but without his journey, we’re not here. Let’s continue to honor and respect the Native Americans and Indigenous People, but let’s also honor and respect what Columbus means to so many Italian-Americans.

Happy Columbus Day America!

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