At the Sag Harbor schools, it’s still called Columbus Day; but that might change.
The district is heading down a path that other school districts — and state and local governments — across the country have traveled in the past decade-plus, and decided to consider a change in how they celebrate the second Monday in October. Instead of honoring Christopher Columbus — who has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as less the hero explorer who connected two continents and more the destroyer of native cultures — the district is beginning to discuss celebrating the indigenous people whom Columbus is credited with enslaving and infecting with disease.
If history repeats, it will be a path fraught with emotion and controversy.
On Monday night, Sag Harbor School Superintendent Jeff Nichols was approved to create a committee to explore the issue, with an eye to possibly taking Columbus Day off the school calendar. In addition to Columbus Day, the committee is to explore adding Juneteenth as a holiday, on June 19, which celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States.
But it is the changing of the celebration of Columbus that promises to offer the greatest controversy. When the Southampton School District began its own discussion of the topic back in 2016, it led to many long meetings before, in 2018, the School Board voted to officially change the name to Indigenous Peoples Day. In the preceding two years, the school calendar simply indicated that schools would be closed the second Monday in October, while for generations before it had been called Columbus Day. School Board meetings were filled with passionate voices on both sides — which, in one case, were literally divided by the aisle in the school auditorium — with members of the Shinnecock Nation saying it was time for a change, including Nation member Nichol Dennis Banks, who told the board, “It is time to right some wrongs, it is time to heal some wounds …” and audience members arguing to honor Columbus, including Louis Gallo of the Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, who said the explorer should be celebrated “for the reasons that we know, and that is his legacy is momentous. It changed the entire world.”
As a historical note, Columbus Day was first celebrated in the United States in 1792, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Bahamas. But, importantly from an Italian heritage perspective, 100 years later, President Benjamin Harrison set the first national celebration of Columbus. It was at a time when there was a heightened animosity toward Italians in the United States, and followed, just a year before, the lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans. Harrison’s decision was seen as an appeasement of the Italian government, which had threatened war over the lynchings, and an olive branch to Italians living in America. For years later, governments were lobbied by groups like the Knights of Columbus to make Columbus Day a holiday, with many states doing so beginning in the early 1900s, until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made it a national holiday in 1934.
In 2019, the Southampton Board of Education voted to add “Italian Heritage Day” to “Indigenous Peoples Day” on the calendar. This year, however, the calendar simply says “No School.” Southampton School Superintendent Nicholas Dyno did not return calls seeking comment before press time.
On Monday night, Mr. Nichols told the members of the Sag Harbor School Board he expected his committee to make a recommendation in time for the next Columbus Day, in 2021. That panel, he suggested, will include a teacher from each of the schools — elementary, middle and high — students from each of the schools (two from elementary, four from middle and six from the high school), a parent representing each of the schools and two School Board members.
“The holiday means different things to different people,” Mr. Nichols said in an interview this week. “For Italian Americans, the holiday was a means of assimilation into the country.”
And while he acknowledges the result of Columbus’s voyages in bringing together two hemispheres, he said he hopes the conversation goes further and also explores the nature of colonialism and imperialism.
As guidance, Mr. Nichols said he is going to ask committee members to read a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, which talks about four principles to consider before toppling statues (or school holidays) that many perceive as offensive. The first, which does not have an application here, is “All the Confederates Must Go.”
The author, Robert McCartney, goes on to say that those personages we are examining deserve to be judged by their main accomplishments. In particular, he draws a contrast between Columbus, whose statues were raised by Italian Americans to honor a fellow countryman and explorer, and the statues of Confederate generals, which were largely raised to intimidate Black people. At the same time, he acknowledges that Native Americans saw Columbus’s successes quite differently than those who erected his statue: as “a catastrophe of displacement and extermination.”
And here is where the third principle is particularly suitable in an educational environment. Mr. McCartney urges the results of these conversations be put into context, suggesting that those individuals with “mixed legacies” be footnoted in a way — plaques, additional text — to illuminate their wrongdoings and give perspective to their lives.
Finally, says Mr. McCartney, whatever body is doing the deliberating, it should take its time.
“Statues serve to venerate and educate,” said Mr. McCartney. The same can be said about school holidays. “It’s worth the time to find the right balance.”
A recent poll by The Express Newsgroup found that of 643 respondents to the question asking if Columbus Day should be changed to Indigenous Peoples Day, 429, or 67 percent, said no; 195, or 30 percent said yes; while only 17, or 3 percent, were undecided. Clearly it is a question with little gray area for residents in our region.
Those arguing in favor of a change cited Columbus’s abuses of the indigenous people he met here.
“I’m born and raised Italian on Long Island. Big family dinners on Sunday, seafood on Christmas Eve, pilgrimages to the San Gennaro Festival. But we never celebrated Christopher Columbus,” said one. “As an adult, I married a member of the Shinnecock Nation and together we had a daughter. Seeing Columbus Day from their perspective made me realize how wrong celebrating Columbus is. I find it to be an insult to everyone involved. Certainly my Italian heritage shouldn’t be represented by a sadistic rapist and murderer and we shouldn’t be celebrating the decimation of indigenous people on any level.”
“We have robbed indigenous people of their land and lives historically. Why would we honor someone who is responsible for that horrific history?”
Yet others underscored the importance of Columbus’s explorations and his role as an icon for Italian Americans.
“I don’t think it is appropriate to rewrite history and disown Columbus’s incredible accomplishments because of the grave injustices later visited on Native Americans,” said one person.
Another said, “He was a man of the times! He discovered this western area and was a gifted seaman! Learn from history, but do not erase it!”
And others sought compromise.
“Why can’t we keep both names? The two are not exclusive of each other. The history is entwined and two stories should be recognized and told.”
The discussion about Columbus Day is indicative of many others occurring in a country that is becoming more fractionalized, observed Mr. Nichols.
“With the polarization that exists in this country today, there has been more focus on these conversations than anytime in my career,” said the superintendent.
And yet he struck a hopeful note: “Can we have a conversation about this without being polarized? I think we can.”