New York City’s public school system has eliminated the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with ‘Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day’ while also adding Juneteenth as a school holiday for the first time.
On Tuesday morning, May 4, 2021, the city’s Department of Education posted the 2021-22 school calendar online without fanfare, replacing Columbus Day on October 11 with Indigenous People’s Day.
After backlash from the city’s Italian American leaders, the calendar was taken offline on Tuesday evening, and re-posted with the holiday changed to ‘Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.’
City Hall wants Italian Heritage Day and Indigenous People’s Day so no one is left out,’ Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesman told the New York Post.
Regardless of what New York City does, Columbus Day remains a federal holiday, as it has been since 1937. While all federal offices are closed on the holiday, not all states recognize it as an off day.
Asked whether City Hall had been aware of the decision to wipe Columbus Day from the school calendar, the spokesman told the outlet only: ‘We do not agree with not including Italian Heritage Day.’
Juneteenth, which celebrates the June 19 date in 1865 when the final slaves in the U.S. were emancipated, falls on a Sunday in 2022 and will be observed by the school system on June 20.
Monday, June 27 will be the final day of the school year for students in the city.
The initial removal of Columbus Day without any mention of an ‘Italian Heritage Day’ drew angry reactions from New York’s leaders in the Italian American community.
City Councilman Joe Borelli of Staten Island called the change ‘insulting woke nonsense’ in a tweet.
After the Department of Education backtracked on the name of the holiday, he remarked: ‘They tried, they got caught, they changed it, they covered the mistake. Cowards. Just have the gumption to cancel the day. Wonder what our mayoral candidates think?’
In March, Meisha Porter took over as Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and would ultimately oversee any changes to the school holiday calendar.
Porter, the first black woman to hold the Chancellor role in the city, was promoted internally after climbing the rungs of the NYC school system, starting as an English teacher and most recently serving as Bronx executive superintendent.
The debate over Columbus Day, and the legacy of Christopher Columbus more generally, has been simmering across the country for years.
Italian Americans view the explorer, born in Genoa, as a source of national and ethnic pride. Columbus made the first documented European contact with the Caribbean and Central and South America in 1492.
Columbus Day parades were originally celebrated in the 1800s, and the holiday was made official as a gesture of support for the community, which at the time suffered from xenophobia and discrimination.
Columbus’ detractors view him as a genocidal colonizer, however, and there is good evidence that Columbus brutally subjugated and enslaved the native Taino people in his quest for gold in the Caribbean.
As early as 2014, Seattle’s city council voted unanimously to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, a move angering the local Italian American community but cheered by Native American activists.
It is a debate that has played out across the country, with city’s and states voting to rename Columbus Day, which remains a federal holiday observed the second Monday in October.
Last year, the statues of Columbus were a frequent target of vandalism during Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ‘temporarily’ removed two prominent statues of Columbus citing safety concerns. The statues have still not been replaced, drawing an angry outcry from Italian Americans last month.
In Philadelphia, an alliance of Italian American groups is suing Mayor Jim Kenney and the city for a ‘long pattern of discrimination’, including canceling the Columbus Day parade and ripping down a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo.
They accuse Kenney of trying to erase Italian-American identity in the city, favoring rioters over people trying to protect statues, and demoting a beloved police captain.
They claim Mayor Kenney had been part of efforts to unfairly recast Columbus as a racist, when he had been the ‘first recorded civil rights activist of the Americas’.
The groups equated the mayor’s alleged persecution of Italian-Americans to the way the Ku Klux Klan had tried to ‘destroy Columbus Day’ in the 1920s and 1930s because of their ‘bigotry toward Catholics and Italian immigrants’.
Mayor Kenney has called the lawsuit a ‘patently meritless political ploy’ that will waste resources.
The most prominent statue of Columbus still standing in the U.S. may be the monument atop a 76-foot column in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.
The statue has remained behind police barricades for nearly a year, and its future remains hotly debated.