Point Park students, political science expert weigh in on Christopher Columbus’ legacy amid ongoing national debate

Italian heritage and the historical mistreatment of Indigenous peoples are the core factors in the dispute

Written By Zack Lawry, Co-News Editor

Last weekend, Americans across the United States continued an ongoing debate about the celebration of a national holiday—and Pittsburgh was no exception.

On Saturday, Oct. 9, Pittsburgh held its annual Columbus Day parade after it was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to local news station WPXI, the parade featured “over 100 bands, floats, organizations and businesses.” Along with the parade procession, former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, served as the event’s grand marshall.

Traditionally recognized on Oct. 12 (though often observed on the second Monday of October), Columbus Day celebrates the arrival of a European expedition led by Christopher Columbus to the land that is now known as the United States of America. In the early 1900s, multiple states declared a “Columbus Day,” and, in 1934, former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the first federal observance, making it a national holiday. It later achieved federal holiday status in 1971.

Andrew Bensch, junior political science major at Point Park, explained how Columbus Day has evolved over time, turning from a celebration of a single explorer to a wider recognition of a subset of the American population.

“Columbus Day has a very interesting origin,” Bensch said. “While the holiday itself was intended to commemorate Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in 1492, the holiday became popular because it was seen as a source of Italian pride. Italian immigrants were treated very badly when they first came to America, so the holiday was a way for them to celebrate their heritage since Columbus was Genoese. ”

Although presidents have since noted Columbus’ expedition as a national proclamation for Italian heritage, through the celebration of individual exploration and set ideals, Time reports that many have begun to challenge Columbus’ actions during his time in comparison to recent historical events.

“His legacy involves the mass extermination of most of the Indigenous peoples who were already living here,” Bensch said. “I do not believe the holiday’s origins are necessarily sinister, but I also do not believe we should be celebrating Columbus as a person. He is responsible for much more negative than he is positive.”

In recent years, accounts of Christopher Columbus’ mistreatment of Indigenous peoples have become more widely recognized. John Ziegler, a junior political science major at Point Park, said that although Columbus’ expedition should not be forgotten, his past cannot be overlooked either.

“The feat of ‘discovering the new world’ is an important detail in history and should most definitely be studied, however we as a society cannot ignore the egregious acts he oversaw,” Ziegler said. “Christopher Columbus certainly wasn’t the only one acting in that manner, and that does not excuse it in any way, but it’s certainly worth looking into the background of other ‘heroes’’ in our history books. The feat should be studied and discussed, but Columbus should not be held in the same light as a hero.”

Not only have Columbus’ actions served as an indictment of his own character in some people’s eyes, but what was once viewed as his greatest accomplishment has been widely discredited by historians.

In the past, Columbus was credited for having ‘discovered’ America. However, this has been disputed with growing frequency in the recent past. Author Russell Freedman examined the story of Columbus in his 2007 book, “Who Was First?”

“For a long time, most people believed that Christopher Columbus was the first explorer to ‘discover’ America—the first to make a successful round-trip voyage across the Atlantic,” Russell wrote. “But in recent years, as new evidence came to light, our understanding of history has changed. We know now that Columbus was among the last explorers to reach the Americas, not the first.”

The presence of Indiginous peoples on the continent prior to Columbus’ arrival contradicts the idea of his discovery, leading historians to debate whether or not he was truly the first to discover America.

Professor Ed Meena, who teaches multiple History courses at Point Park including New World Exploration, said that the Vikings were among those who reached America before Columbus.

“The first people from Europe that were here were actually the Vikings,” Meena said. “Most of what American students were told about Columbus is pretty mythological.”

Meena went on to accuse the American public education system of sometimes deviating from the truth in order to create a more palatable story for students, especially early in their academic careers.

“American history is taught in neat little packages of stories and fables that, in some instances, never really happened. They kind of promote a part of the United States’ existence that we try to present in a positive light. Probably until the 60s or 70s, American history conveniently left out a lot of the accomplishments and achievements of minority groups, a lot of different faces,” Meena said. “

The idea that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492—it’s fine, but it doesn’t really allow people to understand what was already in place when he arrived, and what the consequences were of his coming here for the native people.

— Professor Ed Meena

“That wouldn’t be true history, if it was presented that way, but, for convenience’s sake, it’s not.”

Although Christopher Columbus specifically has been the target of much of the controversy, he was not alone in his mistreatment of Indiginous people, according to Meena. He described the role that others played in this chapter of American history.

“It’s not so much Columbus’s individual actions,” he said. “It was the mindset of Western civilization dealing with other civilizations around the world.”

Despite concerns over Columbus’s legacy, celebrations have continued, such as the annual parade in Pittsburgh. This is likely in part because of how the holiday has evolved over its history, expanding beyond Columbus alone to celebrate Italian-Americans as a whole. TribLive reported in 2020 that Italian-American residents in Pittsburgh gathered by the statue of Christopher Columbus in Schenley Park to protest its planned removal, even suing the city to keep it in place.

The Columbus Day parade’s organizer, Tony Ferraro, told WPXI that the event functions to “honor Italian heritage and recognize the work of Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus.”

During the parade, Franco Harris’ role as grand marshal was a result of his own Italian heritage. He was even cited by Ferraro as “a shining example of the kind of community we strive to be.”

The future of Columbus Day as a holiday remains uncertain. Several alternatives to Columbus Day have been proposed, the most popular being Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In contrast to Columbus Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrates the history of Native Americans, as well as recognizing the atrocities committed against them in America’s past.

The alternative of celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been strongly favorable, causing several states and districts—such as South Dakota, Hawaii, and Washington D.C.—to replace Columbus Day entirely. On Oct. 8, President Joe Biden became the first in the office’s history to make a formal proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day, officially making it a national holiday.

Following the recognition, Biden has also issued a separate proclamation regarding Columbus Day 2021, allowing for both holidays to coexist with each other for the time being.

“I like that Columbus Day is being renamed Indigenous People’s Day, and I hope that it will be renamed that everywhere,” Bensch said. “At the same time, we should be learning about Columbus and everything he did. We should understand why we’re here today, including the atrocities that paved the way to this point.”