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Genocide, Race, Heritage Surround Columbus Day Debate In Pittsfield

Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus (1519) by Sebastiano del Piombo

A debate that has flared up across the country for years took center stage in the Berkshires last night when the Pittsfield School Committee’s decision to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the school calendar overtook the city council meeting.

A petition by Ward 7 councilor Anthony Simonelli that would state the city council’s opposition to the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the Pittsfield public school calendar led to a long, tense conversation about race and heritage in Pittsfield. Citing discontent in the Italian-American community — which was expressed by people from around the state during public comment — Simonelli defended the 15th century figure.

“We have heard that Columbus was a great Renaissance explorer — I’m sorry, yes, explorer — who opened the doors to European art, music, science, medicine, philosophy, religious principles — I personally feel, and I believe others of Italian heritage feel, that students need to be made aware of indigenous people, but also of Christopher Columbus’s achievements as well.”

Many people of color and those with native heritage expressed their support for the school committee’s decision to remove Columbus from the school calendar, including Pittsfield resident Michael Vincent Bushy, who said he has both Mohawk and Italian heritage.

“It’s a decision spreading across America and a small gesture to acknowledge the long history of injustice, and it’s long past due,” said Bushy.

It all began with a school committee meeting in January.

“The night of the original vote, we had three people speak at the public participation portion of our meeting — all in favor of the change, and one was a city councilor. Believe me, we had no idea there was this kind of opposition to what we were doing," said president Katherine Yon, addressing the council Tuesday.

The councilor at the January meeting was Pete White.

“On May 23rd, we put the issue back on our agenda because there was a group of people who felt their voices had not been heard, so we listened, and I must say, that went very well,” said Yon.

Despite the committee’s repeated efforts to publicize its decision, Simonelli directly attacked the independent body — a separate elected group of city officials.

“Was your discussion and ultimate vote even legal?" asked Simonelli. "Was the Open Meeting Law violated by not posting this item on your agenda, and was taken up and ultimately voted upon?”

Others questioned if it’s a violation of federal law to not follow the holiday, which FDR established in 1937.

“To sit in a room and have somebody look at me and tell me I’m violating the U.S. Constitution because this was allowed to happen on my watch is utter nonsense," said School Superintendent Jake McCandless. He audibly reprimanded Council President Peter Marchetti in the gallery after the discussion for a meeting he characterized as poorly managed and unintentionally racist.

“This was a thoughtful and well-intentioned effort by our school committee to address something that they felt was in need of address," he told WAMC. "We made no effort to have the city of Pittsfield change Columbus Day.”

Before long, the meeting became an exercise in historical and moral relativity.

“Was Christopher Columbus a perfect man without faults?" asked Simonelli. "No. Did he commit mass genocide? No. He was a man living in different times than we are today.”

Councilor John Krol rebutted that claim, characterizing Columbus’ treatment of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean as genocidal.

“Columbus’s acts of cruelty were so unspeakable and legendary even in his own day — not in 2018, in his own day — the governor in Spain slapped him and his two brothers into chains and shipped them off to Spain to answer for their crimes against the natives,” Krol said at the meeting.

“Teaching our children real history instead of fairytale history is important. I would have rather learned the history from the beginning rather than waiting until I was a history major in college to learn about Columbus," said Councilor Pete White.

He also pointed out that criticism of Columbus did not constitute an attack on Italian heritage — which is how it’s often perceived.

“I see connections to Spain, which is who paid for the trip, who paid for everything that went along with it," said White. "If I was Italian, I would probably see the connection to Columbus not as a proud part of my history, but something to be embarrassed about.”

The petition was narrowly defeated, 6-5. The July 11th Pittsfield school committee meeting will address the matter for a third time.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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