A History Lesson for Our Public Schools and Teachers

Our Public Schools are highly regarded as a bridge to ensure that our children will have as bright a future for themselves as they are able to achieve if they are given the skills to read, write, cipher, and think critically about issues they may not have a deep understanding of. As the parents and guardians of our most treasured possessions, our children, it is our moral obligation to ensure that they have as much opportunity to learn and develop these skills during their formative learning years of Kindergarten through High School, with the hopes that they will become self-reliant through the achievement of a solid education.

Fairhaven Middle School Teachers workroom posted this flyer. Image provided by a Fairhaven MS parent who wonders what this message is intended for and do they actually understand the history behind this holiday?

History is an important part of education and should always be treated with reverence and understanding of that time in history. America is a melting pot of many ethnicity’s one of which are our Italian-American population. Last Monday as many citizens enjoyed a paid holiday from their work-place to honor Columbus Day, it was noticed that at one of our public schools there was a questionable posting in the teacher’s workroom. Does this flyer demonstrate the type of group-think which is permeating our public schools? The posting of this question does not deal with, Why America Celebrates Columbus Day. Isn’t it time that our public schools treat history as history? Is it their intent to instill shame and anger upon the children who we place in their hands to educate? Is it their responsibility to provide a balance between a child’s education and their self-image if they are a child of today, not a voyager of the 1700’s?

The reason we share this with you here is not to denigrate or deny a public school teachers free speech. But, we do question the motive of the poster and wonder why there is no contextualization as to the history and reasoning behind this national holiday? Teachers, please do your homework and fully understand that Columbus Day is meant to bring American’s together at a moment in time when what occurred here, changed the history of the America’s and the world, forever. Take this historical moment-in-time and understand the coming together of two worlds. Please do not try to layer today’s evolved humanity as a reason to shun and denigrate the past.

When thinking about the Columbus Day holiday it helps to remember the good intentions of the people who put together the first parade in New York. Columbus Day was first proclaimed a national holiday by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, 400 years after Columbus’s first voyage. The idea, lost on present-day critics of the holiday, was that this would be a national holiday that would be special for recognizing both Native Americans, who were here before Columbus, and the many immigrants—including Italians—who were just then coming to this country in astounding numbers. It was to be a national holiday that was not about the Founding Fathers or the Civil War, but about the rest of American history. Like the Columbian Exposition dedicated in Chicago that year and opened in 1893, it was to be about our land and all its people. Harrison especially designated the schools as centers of the Columbus celebration because universal public schooling, which had only recently taken hold, was seen as essential to a democracy that was seriously aiming to include everyone and not just preserve a governing elite.

You won’t find it in the public literature surrounding the first Columbus Day in 1892, but in the background lay two recent tragedies, one involving Native Americans, the other involving Italian Americans. The first tragedy was the massacre by U.S. troops of between 146 and 200 Lakota Sioux, including men, women and children, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890. Shooting began after a misunderstanding involving an elderly, deaf Sioux warrior who hadn’t heard and therefore did not understand that he was supposed to hand over his rifle to the U.S. Cavalry. The massacre at Wounded Knee marked the definitive end of Indian resistance in the Great Plains. The episode was immediately seen by the government as potentially troubling, although there was much popular sentiment against the Sioux. An inquiry was held, the soldiers were absolved, and some were awarded medals that Native Americans to this day are seeking to have rescinded.

A second tragedy in the immediate background of the 1892 Columbus celebration took place in New Orleans. There, on March 14, 1891—only 10 weeks after the Wounded Knee Massacre—11 Italians were lynched in prison by a mob led by prominent Louisiana politicians. A trial for the murder of the New Orleans police chief had ended in mistrials for three of the Italians and the acquittal of the others who were brought to trial. Unhappy with the verdict and spurred on by fear of the “Mafia” (a word that had only recently entered American usage), civic leaders organized an assault on the prison to put the Italians to death. This episode was also troubling to the U.S. Government. These were legally innocent men who had been killed. But Italians were not very popular, and even Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that he thought the New Orleans Italians “got what they deserved.” A grand jury was summoned, but no one was charged with a crime. President Harrison, who would proclaim the Columbus holiday the following year, was genuinely saddened by the case, and over the objections of some members of congress he paid reparations to the Italian government for the deaths of its citizens.

Whenever I hear of protests about the Columbus Day holiday—protests that tend to pit Native Americans against Italian Americans, I remember these tragedies that occurred so soon before the first Columbus Day holiday, and I shake my head. President Harrison did not allude to either of these sad episodes in his proclamation of the holiday, but the idea for the holiday involved a vision of an America that would get beyond the prejudice that had led to these deaths. Columbus Day was supposed to recognize the greatness of all of America’s people, but especially Italians and Native Americans.

Consider how the first Columbus Day parade in New York was described in the newspapers. It consisted mostly of about 12,000 public school students grouped into 20 regiments, each commanded by a principal. The boys marched in school uniforms or their Sunday best, while the girls, dressed in red, white and blue, sat in bleachers. Alongside the public schoolers there were military drill squads and 29 marching bands, each of 30 to 50 instruments. After the public schools, there followed 5,500 students from the Catholic schools. Then there were students from the private schools wearing school uniforms. These included the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Barnard School Military Corps, and the Italian and American Colonial School. The Dante Alighieri Italian College of Astoria was dressed entirely in sailor outfits. These were followed by the Native American marching band from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which, according to one description, included “300 marching Indian boys and 50 tall Indian girls.” That the Native Americans came right after the students from the Dante Alighieri School speaks volumes about the spirit of the original Columbus Day.

I teach college kids, and since they tend to be more skeptical about Columbus Day than younger students, it’s nice to point out that the first Columbus Day parade had a “college division.” Thus 800 New York University students played kazoos and wore mortarboards. In between songs they chanted “Who are we? Who are we? New York Universitee!” The College of Physicians and Surgeons wore Skeletons on their hats. And the Columbia College students marched in white hats and white sweaters, with a message on top of their hats that spelled out “We are the People.”

What Columbus Day Really Means – The American Scholar Columbus Day Removal in LA – The Daily Caller The Left is Wrong About Columbus Day – Unbiased America

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