Pittsfield School Committee Stands By Removal Of Columbus Day
After months of contentious debate, the Pittsfield School Committee on Wednesday doubled down on its decision to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the public school calendar.
For educators, the problem with Columbus Day in Massachusetts starts at the top.
“The governor shall annually issue a proclamation setting apart the second Monday in October as Columbus Day and recommending that it be observed by the people, with appropriate exercises in the schools and otherwise, to the end that the memory of the courage, perseverance and spiritual fervor of Christopher Columbus, discoverer of America, may be perpetuated," read Pittsfield School Committee Chair Katherine Yon.
She was reciting Part I, Title II, Chapter 6, Section 12V of the Massachusetts General Laws.
“Columbus did not discover America," Yon told WAMC. "Bottom line.”
Since the beginning of 2018, Yon has been advocating for correcting the historical record about Christopher Columbus, whose vociferously debated legacy has overtaken Pittsfield in recent months. It began with a January 24th school committee vote to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on the Pittsfield public school calendar.
“At that time, the night of the vote, we had only three people speak, and those three people were in favor of our decision to change the school calendar,” said Yon.
Proponents of the change saw it as a vital step in repairing centuries of injustice indigenous peoples experienced under colonial rule.
“And after that," said Yon, "it was sort of an uprising from the Italian community in Pittsfield.”
“Members of the ITAM Lodge, UNICO, The Italian American Club, Knights Of Columbus, Ciao," said Pittsfield City Councilor Anthony Simonelli at the June 12th city council meeting, reeling off a list of local Italian-American organizations he said approached him dissatisfied with the school committee’s decision.
“Italian-Americans are proud people," said Simonelli. "They’re proud of their heritage as are other ethnic groups.”
Simonelli, bolstered by a bevy of speakers from Pittsfield and beyond, was attempting to pass a petition through the council condemning the committee’s choice. While the move failed, it revealed the depth of the discord the calendar change had awoken. Simonelli — who could not be reached for comment on this story — questioned the legality of the school committee’s vote in his address and accused it of revising history.
“I ask the school committee, please take into account that your decision on altering history and the public outcry of support for keeping Columbus Day on the school calendar," said Simonelli at the council meeting. "Please do the right and return Columbus Day to the school calendar.”
For Yon, the issue hits home on multiple levels.
“Well, I think we’re educators," she said. "And I think the Columbus Day holiday honoring Columbus the way that it does really does a disservice to education.”
Beyond the fact that Columbus did not discover North America, common understandings of his role as an explorer have downplayed the atrocities he committed in the Caribbean, which saw its population enslaved and wither due to disease under European control. Columbus pre-dated modern conceptions of Italy by centuries and his efforts were in service to the Spanish crown when he set sail in 1492.
But even more personally, Yon is herself Italian.
“My family did not celebrate Columbus Day as an Italian holiday," she told WAMC. "And I don’t know — some of these people apparently do. They really — this is part of celebrating their Italian heritage.”
The holiday was the source of controversy from nativist groups when it was formalized by FDR in 1934.
“I think Italians were feeling themselves terribly discriminated against and they were looking for perhaps a way out of this and someone to really latch on to to celebrate their heritage, and it was Columbus,” said Yon.
She sees the move to embrace the experience of Indigenous Peoples instead as a step forward for Pittsfield.
“It’s that idea of diversity and respecting diversity, particularly in Pittsfield today. Particularly in Pittsfield today," Yon told WAMC. "The acceptance of it, not the destruction of it.”