WASHINGTON – A few events are planned, banks will be closed and state and federal workers will have the day off, but there will be little else to mark Columbus Day around the state Monday.
That’s just fine with some people.
“They make it like it’s a wonderful thing that Europeans discovered this part of the world,” said Aubrey Williams, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Where Native Americans are concerned, he brought chaos and rape and disease. Their life here before Columbus wasn’t always peaceful, but it was meaningful.”
That sort of talk irritates Roy Joyner, the president of the Belair Road Lodge of the Sons of Italy in Baltimore County.
“Columbus was an Italian and he was actually the person who brought the Old World to the New World,” Joyner said. “I think that’s impressive. It’s a shame that people have let it go.”
To Joyner, the holiday is a chance to celebrate Italian heritage the way Irish Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Several Sons of Italy lodges were scheduled to participate in Sunday’s Columbus Day parade near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. But tourism officials around the state were hard-pressed to identify any other celebrations besides the Baltimore parade and related events in the city’s Little Italy section.
Most banks were scheduled to be closed Monday, but many stores and local governments will be open for business as usual. Most public schools will also be open, although Prince George’s County students have the day off for a staff development day.
Today’s major Columbus Day celebrations are generally held in cities with large Italian populations, said Joe Laufer, a Columbus specialist and a professor at Burlington County Community College in New Jersey until his retirement last year.
Laufer said Columbus’ achievements merit a holiday despite the explorer’s flaws.
“That was then and this is now,” Laufer said. “What Columbus did was what nations did then when they came to new lands. They took them over. We have to judge Columbus by 1492 standards, not 1999 standards.”
Columbus Day was first officially celebrated in Colorado in 1905 and President Franklin Roosevelt declared it a national holiday in 1937, at the urging of Italian Americans. Although Columbus made his initial voyage to the Americas under the Spanish flag, he was Italian born.
Laufer, who played a major part in the 1992 nationwide celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, does not think the holiday in any way condones Columbus’ actions toward American Indians.
But Williams said Columbus’ exploits are “unworthy of celebration” because they triggered a “holocaust.”
“After Columbus’ arrival, 80 percent of the Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere died as a result of war and disease,” Williams said.
Joyner thinks it is unfair to blame Columbus for the devastation that Williams claims continues even today.
“He wasn’t the only one who did this,” Joyner said. “Somebody would have found us sooner or later.”
Joyner thinks schools teach children the wrong ideas about Columbus. But Laufer sees room for both education and celebration.
“The kids in the schools should be given assignments and have assemblies and other special programs to deal with what really did happen 500 years ago,” said Laufer, who spoke at schools throughout the country in 1992 dressed as Columbus.
“I think we should use these events to relearn our history and keep aware of what the whole process was. We have to respect what has gone before us.”