President Benjamin Harrison declared Oct. 12, 1892 “Columbus Day.” The back story echos contemporary themes of racism, unjust policing, and media-stoked mob violence.
Harrison’s Columbus Day proclamation was intended to be a one-time thing, honoring the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Western Hemisphere. Columbus Day might never have happened but for an international emergency. Harrison was trying “to help resolve a diplomatic crisis with Italy — and gain support among Italian American voters — after rioters in New Orleans lynched 11 Italian immigrants” in 1891, according to an article in the Washington Post.
This first Columbus Day also provided the spring board for efforts to get children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in schools across the country.
The story begins with gunmen killing New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy as he walked home on the evening of Oct. 15, 1890. Hennessy lived long enough to identify the shooters as Italian, but couldn’t identify any individuals.
Anti-Italian sentiment was strong across the country. According to the Picayune, New Orleans Mayor Joseph A. Shakspeare “told the police to ‘scour the whole neighborhood. Arrest every Italian you come across.'”
Police rounded up as many as 250 Italians. Most were released for lack of evidence. Forty-five men were arrested and 19 were eventually charged with murder or as accessories.
A few days later, “Mayor Shakspeare gave a speech declaring that Hennessy had been ‘the victim of Sicilian vengeance’ and calling upon the citizenry to ‘teach these people a lesson they will not forget.'”
Nine Italian men went on trial in early 1891. A jury found the defendants either not guilty or couldn’t reach consensus, resulting in mistrials.
In spite of the verdicts, the defendants were returned to Parish Prison as local leaders stirred public anger. Speaking in the street, Attorney William S. Parkerson exhorted people to “‘set aside the verdict of that infamous jury, every one of whom is a perjurer and a scoundrel.'”
The article The Lynching That Gave Us Columbus Day in The Medium noted that salacious newspaper accounts vilified the Italians “as monsters worthy of mob violence. Newspaper stories echoed the mainstream belief that Italians were savages. Protestant Americans believed the Italians were natural-born criminals who were more loyal to the Pope than to the United States.”
On March 14, 1891, a large and outraged crowd amassed outside the prison, Wikipedia said. They broke down its doors and went inside in search of Italians.
While the spontaneous mob numbered in the thousands, “the killings were carried out by a relatively small, disciplined ‘execution squad’ within the mob, led by Parkerson and three other city leaders: Walter Denegre, lawyer; James D. Houston, politician and businessman; and John C. Wickliffe, editor of the New Delta newspaper.”
In all, 11 Italians were lynched or shot. Three of them had been tried and acquitted, three had mistrials and five hadn’t gone to trial yet. Others managed to escape.
The political backlash
According to the Washington Post story:
Italian Americans and leaders of the kingdom of Italy were outraged. Italy broke off diplomatic relations and recalled its ambassador from Washington. The Harrison administration in turn removed the U.S. legation from Rome. There was even talk of war.
President Harrison was up for reelection in 1892 and didn’t want to alienate the Italian vote. It would take nine months, but he eventually denounced the lynching in a speech to Congress. He also agreed to Italy’s demands to pay restitution to the families of three victims who were Italian citizens.
Harrison was criticized in some quarters for giving in to Italy’s demands, the Post article said.
Harrison’s proclamation naming Oct. 12, 1892 as “Columbus Day” was one more effort to rebuild relationships with Italy. Massive crowds turned out for Columbus Day celebrations across the country.
Columbus Day wouldn’t become a national holiday until 1934. It become a federal holiday (the second Monday in October) in 1971.
Columbus Day, and Columbus in general, remain politically charged. (An American Indian Movement leader toppled the Columbus statue on the Minnesota Capitol Mall in 2020.)
This past Friday, President Joe Biden saw the need to issue two different proclamations for Oct. 11.
On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor America’s first inhabitants and the Tribal Nations that continue to thrive today. I encourage everyone to celebrate and recognize the many Indigenous communities and cultures that make up our great country.Presidential Proclamation
Also on Friday, Biden issued a proclamation naming Oct. 11, 2021 as Columbus Day. It includes an acknowledgement of the harm done to Indigenous peoples by explorers such as Columbus.
Today, we also acknowledge the painful history of wrongs and atrocities that many European explorers inflicted on Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities. It is a measure of our greatness as a Nation that we do not seek to bury these shameful episodes of our past — that we face them honestly, we bring them to the light, and we do all we can to address them.Presidential Proclamation
The Pledge of Allegiance
The first Columbus Day also gave national energy to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Captain George Thatcher Balch, a Civil War Union Army Officer and later a patriotism teacher, wrote the first version of the Pledge of Allegiance in 1887, Wikipedia said.
We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!First Pledge of Allegiance
The Wikipedia entry continued:
Francis Bellamy, a Baptist preacher and Christian Socialist, found Balch’s version “too juvenile and lacking in dignity.” Bellamy wrote his own version, first published in the Sept. 8, 1892 issue of the The Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine. Bellamy’s version read:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
James B. Upham, a marketer for The Youth’s Companion, conceived and promoted a campaign to have school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance “to instill the idea of American nationalism in students and to encourage children to raise flags above their schools.”
Upham and Bellamy’s goal was to make the Pledge a part of the National Public-School Celebration of Columbus Day. And it worked.
The National Education Association (NEA) was a Columbus Day observance sponsor. Bellamy and Upham got the NEA to support the idea of using the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the celebration.
“By June 29, 1892, Bellamy and Upham had arranged for Congress and President Harrison to announce a proclamation making the public school flag ceremony the center of the Columbus Day celebrations.”