The story of how the first Columbus Day celebration began in 1892 is a tragic example of the mistreatment of immigrants that needs to be told.

Between 1880 and 1920, some 4 million Italian immigrants left impoverished towns throughout southern Italy to seek a better life for their families in the U.S.

Upon their arrival in America, they were subjected to violence and hostility unlike anything they had experienced in Italy. Many of these immigrants arrived through the port of New Orleans to provide cheap labor needed in the sugar-cane fields. They took the place of emancipated slaves.

One of the worst episodes of racial violence in our country’s history occurred in New Orleans in 1891 when the city’s police chief, David Hennessy, was shot. As he lay dying in a dark street, when asked who shot him, he allegedly said, “the Dagos.”

Some 200 Italian immigrants were taken into custody, and nine of them were tried before a jury. None were found guilty. Despite that finding, they were all returned to the jail.

Political and business leaders in the community inflamed the deep-seated anti-Italian-immigrant sentiment that existed in New Orleans. A mob in excess of 5,000 people gathered in the town square, stormed the jail, and beat, shot and lynched 11 Italian immigrants. This was the largest mob to ever participate in a mass lynching in American history. Yet you will not read a single word about it in any of our school’s history books.

To fully understand how despised the immigrants were, The New York Times, and many other newspapers throughout the country, actually applauded the lynchings in their editorials. A future president, Teddy Roosevelt, stated that the lynchings “were a rather good thing.”

Tragically, the New Orleans lynchings were not an isolated incident. Over the next 30 years, 40 more Italian immigrants were strung up by angry mobs.

In an effort to encourage more tolerance and acceptance of Italian immigrants, President Benjamin Harrison declared a national celebration of Columbus Day in 1892. From that day to this, Columbus, who was regarded as a national hero of Italian heritage, was embraced by Italian immigrants as a symbol that they would someday be accepted in America.

But injustice again befell our community in 1920, when immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested and ultimately executed in Massachusetts for allegedly killing a shoe factory paymaster and guard.

Their trial was another example of a corrupted justice system. The trial was conducted by a bigoted judge who expressed his contempt for Italian immigrants publicly. Protests in support of Sacco and Vanzetti were held throughout the world to no avail.

Anti-Italian hysteria again reached a fever pitch in World War II, when 600,000 Italians living in our country were designated as enemy aliens and were subjected to curfews, confiscation of property, loss of jobs, relocation from their homes, and in many cases internment camps. The tragic irony of this situation is that while they were being treated as criminals, one million of their sons were fighting and dying to keep our country free.

Through decade after decade of hardship, hostility, persecution and prejudice, the statues, parades and days created in Columbus’ honor were the outlets through which Italians in America expressed their pride in their heritage and their gratitude to their new homeland. This unique and inseparable bond helped our community overcome the bias and violence we encountered in our long journey to assimilation into America’s mainstream culture.

To hear many well-intentioned, but misinformed, Americans vilify Columbus because of contrived allegations that are not supported by primary source material is a desecration of our country’s history.

Many books have been published in recent years that debunk all of the lies and misinformation. The following books provide a truthful and accurate representation of Columbus’ heroic accomplishments and his honorable character: “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem,” by Carol Delaney; “Debunking Howard Zinn,” by Mary Grabar; and “Christopher Columbus The Hero,” by Rafael.

Happy Columbus Day to all!
Basil M. Russo

President, Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations