STAMFORD – For Al Fusco, Columbus Day is as much about what happened in New Orleans in 1891 as it is about the voyage of an Italian seafarer in 1492.
New Orleans helps explain why Fusco, a retired dentist and founding member of the Stamford chapter of UNICO, an Italian-American service organization, fought four years ago to keep the statue of Columbus in the downtown park with his name.
New Orleans helps explain why Fusco organized successful protests last year, and the year before that, when the Board of Education sought to eliminate Columbus Day as a school holiday.
But last month the Board of Education, in a 5-3 vote, did just that. New Orleans helps explain why Fusco won’t give up the fight to bring the holiday back.
It’s because in Louisiana on March 14, 1891, 11 Italian-Americans were slaughtered by a bigoted, cheering mob in one of the worst mass-lynchings in U.S. history.
“Most people don’t even know about it,” Fusco said. “Italians who came to America faced vicious discrimination. But they wanted to prove that they loved America, and they wanted America to accept them, so they worked hard. Columbus Day symbolizes that.”
Columbus and his federal holiday have become increasingly divisive.
Some see him as a daring hero who connected the old world of Europe to the new world of the Americas. Others see him as a brutal plunderer who enslaved the indigenous people he encountered. The split is illustrated by the United States’ decision in 2021 to add a holiday to the one commemorated on the second Monday in October – Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
For Fusco and other Italian-Americans, Columbus Day is a marker, and for the very reason many oppose it – the historic mistreatment of an ethnic people.
Whisper births a mob
The New Orleans incident began when a popular police chief was gunned down while walking home from work. As he died, someone asked the chief, David Hennessy, who’d shot him. Hennessy whispered a derogatory word for Italians.
At the time, Italians were arriving in New Orleans in droves, drawn by laborer jobs. According to newspaper accounts from the time, Hennessy’s killing ignited anti-Italian sentiment already brewing in New Orleans.
Because the sentiment also was brewing in many other American cities, all eyes were on the killings in New Orleans.
City police rounded up hundreds of Italians, arresting nine men on suspicion. The men were put on trial. Six were found not guilty and three cases ended in mistrials.
But that was not what the people of New Orleans wanted. An angry mob of thousands marched to the jail. Armed men stormed in, taking the nine who’d just gone to trial, plus others. They were shot, their bodies torn apart and hanged as the crowd cheered.
The incident was so vicious that the Italian government demanded punishment for the lynch mob. But it included many of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens, and no one was held to account. Hennessy’s killer was never identified.
Around the United States, Americans lauded the lynchings, which motivated more violence and bigotry.
In 1892, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, President Benjamin Harrison tried to soothe tensions. He issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to celebrate Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment,” according to Smithsonian Museum’s online magazine.
Harrison also hoped to encourage acceptance of Italian immigrants, according to Smithsonian. But the lynchings had created lasting repercussions for Italian-Americans.
Fusco said the history of Columbus Day is tied directly to the hardships Italian-Americans endured, even as they helped build America’s cities, create businesses that boosted its economy, and fight in wars to preserve its freedoms.
“President Harrison was trying to right a wrong,” Fusco said. Americans had been celebrating Columbus since the early days of the republic, so “Italian-Americans embraced the day,” he said.
Considering the calendar
Because of his strong feelings on the topic, Fusco said, he joined the school board’s calendar committee, which met twice in October and once in November.
“They came up with a calendar that included Columbus Day and Veterans Day. I didn’t think a thing more about it,” he said. “Then I went to the January Board of Education meeting, when they were going to vote on it.”
To his surprise, Fusco said, board member Joshua Esses, saying the school year is too long, made a motion to remove five holidays from the calendar – Juneteenth, the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day.
It went to a vote, and board members chose to keep schools closed on the first three holidays but not on Veterans Day and Columbus Day.
“They must have planned all this ahead of time,” Fusco said of school board members. “People are upset about how this was done in such a backroom way. The whole thing stunk.”
Not so, said Kathleen Steinberg, spokeswoman for Stamford Public Schools.
Steinberg said school board Secretary Andy George chaired the calendar committee to “gather stakeholder feedback,” and Superintendent Tamu Lucero presented one indicating no school on Columbus Day and Veterans Day. “However, the (board) is not bound by committee opinions or the superintendent’s recommendations,” Steinberg said.
The committee surveyed families and staff about the calendar in November, Steinberg said. The survey revealed that only 43 percent of families supported closing schools on Columbus Day, and 54 percent on Veterans Day, she said.
Holding class on those days “is an opportunity for Stamford Public Schools to provide all students with a better understanding of the historical and cultural significance of these holidays,” Steinberg said. “No one is doubting the contributions of Stamford’s Italian American community.”
The school calendar, however, “does not designate days off in honor of any ethnic group,” she said. “Columbus Day is a federal holiday honoring a historical figure, and federal and state laws offer … school districts leeway in how the holiday is observed.”
Lots of TV spots
The backlash to the school board’s decision was immediate. Fusco said reporters started calling from around the region – WABC-TV, Fox, News12, the New York Post, Newsweek and more.
He told them history must be taught in full, Fusco said.
“Bad things happened after Columbus set foot in America, but that’s not what we celebrate,” he said. “Indigenous people had been in America since the Ice Age. Columbus introduced two branches of the human race that had been separated for 10,000 years. Each didn’t know that the other existed. Historians have called it the most significant event in the human race.”
Columbus detractors cite the writings of Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish historian and missionary. De las Casas sailed on Columbus’s third voyage and became a planter on Hispaniola, now Haiti. He protested the mistreatment of indigenous people.
De las Casas wrote that Columbus was “good-natured, kind, daring, courageous and pious,” but he enslaved thousands of indigenous Arawaks on Hispaniola and worked many of them to death trying to extract gold from the ground. Columbus sent hundreds of slaves to Spain, de las Casas wrote.
Fusco said several cities in Connecticut are interested in the Columbus debate, including New Britain, Branford and Clinton, and he plans to speak to them. The Italian American Defense League is exploring how to address it statewide, he said.
He doesn’t know what’s next for Stamford. The Board of Education can take the matter up again if a member makes a motion to discuss the calendar, and two-thirds of the board approves.
“We’re hoping they will try to resolve it in a way that makes everybody comfortable,” Fusco said. “Otherwise our only recourse is how we vote in the next election.”