The reputation of Christopher Columbus is pretty much in the dumps these days, and the annual holiday celebrating his voyage of discovery generates spirited debate. It’s almost forgotten now just how important Columbus Day was to the grudging acceptance of Italian Americans.
In the late 1800s, Italians were only reluctantly tolerated in the U.S. A few quotes from Cincinnati newspapers gives the general tenor of anti-Italian sentiment in this country:
“Nearly every week from three to five hundred destitute Italian immigrants are landed in New York. They bring no money and very little baggage. Their clothing is thin and ragged, and they suffer pitiably from the cold, to which they are strangers.” Commercial Tribune [December 11, 1872]
“The officials spoke in severe terms of the Italians, averring that they are the most worthless of the immigrants of all nationalities, bringing no money with them to this country, and earning little or none after arrival.” Cincinnati Times [December 12, 1872]
“Of all the emigrants coming here from Europe, the most deformed, rickety, dirty, wretched and thievish are the Italians.” Commercial Tribune [January 17, 1881]
“Of all European races few are more demoralized than the Italian. He is a born beggar, devoid of all patriotic sentiment and respect. An Italian never cares to advance his position. He is content to beg with a hand organ, or to carry on some revolting traffic under cloak of a small fruit store or ice cream saloon.” Cincinnati Gazette [July 8, 1881]
In other cities, anti-Italian prejudice ran even stronger. When the police chief of New Orleans was assassinated in 1891, suspicion fell on that city’s Italian community. A mob killed 11 Italian immigrants in one of the largest public lynchings in American history. In the aftermath of the New Orleans riot, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day as a one-time holiday in 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. The holiday coincided with the dedication of the site for the World’s Columbian Exhibition, otherwise known as the Chicago World’s Fair, which opened the following year.
Cincinnati’s Italian community enthusiastically welcomed an official holiday honoring one of their own, but the local arrangements committee was dominated by non-Italians. Unlike New York, San Francisco and New Orleans, Cincinnati had relatively few Italian residents then and even fewer in positions of any prominence.
Although Dr. Augustus Ravogli, physician and Italian consul to Cincinnati, chaired the General Committee of the Columbus Day Celebration, the rest of the seats were filled with delegates from the German Veterans’ Association and the very Germanic Turners’ Association. The Grand Marshal for Cincinnati’s massive parade on October 21, 1892 was Ralph Peters, regional superintendent of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad. The big Columbus Day concert at Music Hall featured none of the Italian singers then touring America, but it did feature a local soprano named Sadie McClelland. Though the star was not Italian, J.V. Coppola, an Italian Vine Street barber, volunteered to escort the young songstress to Music Hall in his carriage. Saloonkeeper Joseph Brichetto was drafted to impersonate Columbus throughout Cincinnati’s gala celebrations.
It is notable that William H. Morgan, Superintendent of Public Schools, encouraged “national songs and recitations” in his instructions for celebrating Columbus Day to Cincinnati’s school principals. The anniversary of Columbus’ landing prompted a great deal of patriotic feeling, and it’s no coincidence that the Pledge of Allegiance was composed in 1892.
Most participants were just as happy to promote the European occupation of the hemisphere rather than Italians’ contribution to that endeavor. Some of that reticence was religious. Columbus, after all, represented the Catholic countries of Italy and Spain. Cincinnati Mayor John B. Mosby was overheard at a planning session voicing his concerns. According to The Cincinnati Post [September 17, 1892]:
“[Mayor Mosby] opposed the parade in one way—that there was too much religion about it, and it looked as though the Catholic societies were the only ones to participate.”
Catholic support for Columbus Day was strong. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Columbus Day achieved status as an annual national holiday, and the very Catholic Knights of Columbus were heavily influential in that decision. As it was, in 1892, Cincinnati settled the religion issue by organizing two parades, one for Catholics and one for everyone else. Students from Cincinnati’s public schools marched on October 19, 1892, while students from the city’s parochial schools marched the next day. The parades were similar in size.
Even in 1892, there were those who wondered why we were celebrating Christopher Columbus. The Post reported [October 25, 1892] on a group of Louisville ministers who were opposed to celebrating Columbus Day:
“Ministers here are quarreling about the Columbus Day celebration. Rev. McKamy of the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church denounced Columbus from the pulpit as a liar, a pirate, an associate of lewd women, a slave trader, a deserter of his wife, and a man utterly without one Christian principle. He said he was not led to the discovery through an interest in science, but a sordid love for gold, and this hero worship was out of place.”
By the day after, most sectarian disputes had been shuffled behind patriotic bunting. Cincinnati never really developed a Columbus Day parade tradition like other cities, but The Commercial Gazette [October 21, 1892] was effusive in its review of the 1892 program:
“The red, white and blue, the colors of the greatest country the sun ever shone upon, were mingled with those of the two other countries most intimately associated with the discovery of this continent: Italy and Spain. The great stream of red, white and blue, spangled with the bright stars in the fields of blue, and constantly disturbed by the vitality of youth that would not allow it to quiet, dazzled and confused the retina, and thousands of brains last night struggled through sleep with a succession of dissolving views that came and went like breaking prisms.”
For that brief moment, Cincinnati’s Italian community glowed in a favorable spotlight.