Squilla: Kenney’s Columbus Day order an affront to Italians

Council Member Mark Squilla. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

City Councilmember Mark Squilla is opposing the city’s decision to change the designation of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.

Mayor Jim Kenney signed the executive order on Jan. 27, which will immediately change the 2021 holiday, which falls on Oct. 11.

“I strongly support a holiday for our Indigenous peoples,” Squilla said in a lengthy statement released on Feb. 9. “However, I strongly oppose having a new holiday replace an existing holiday that celebrates Italian American heritage.”

Squilla said the mayor’s order is “disheartening and a personal affront to Italian Americans.”

“I find it unethical to take a day from one group to celebrate immigrant culture and heritage and give that day to a different cultural group,” Squilla said in the statement.

The executive order comes as the latest effort to rid the city of what it deems racially insensitive history. The Christopher Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza became a much-debated and highly controversial target during the summer after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis caused a ripple affect across the country as many statues of the Italian explorer were toppled or removed by local government.

“I believe this action will lead to more conflict and division in our City and Commonwealth,” Squilla said. “I find it counter-intuitive to Mayor Kenney’s statement, ‘this change is viewed as an acknowledgment of the centuries of institutional racism and marginalization that have been forced upon Black Americans, Indigenous people, and other communities of color’ because Italian Americans were also persecuted and endured racism in this country, over the course of history.”

Columbus Day has been celebrated in Philadelphia on the second Monday of October since 1869. The Columbus statue was placed in Fairmount Park in 1876 and moved to Marconi Plaza a hundred years later. A large population of Italian-American residents in South Philadelphia believes Columbus still represents their heritage and is a symbol of the persecution Italian Americans endured.

“During WWII, despite more than 500,000 Italian Americans fighting for our country abroad, hundreds of thousands were persecuted on our soil,” Squilla said. “Our government removed Italian Americans from their homes and sent them to internment camps while many others endured curfews, confiscations and surveillance. On Columbus Day in 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt removed the designation of Italian Americans as “Enemy Aliens” along with a plan to offer citizenship to 200,000 elderly Italian immigrants living in the United States who had been unable to acquire citizenship because of the literacy requirements.”

Philadelphia will join a list of cities to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, which includes other large metropolitans like Austin, Cincinnati, Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle.

“Since 1792, Italian Americans have observed Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage in the United States,” Squilla said. “In 1892, following the lynching and murder of Italian immigrants in New Orleans, President Benjamin Harrison declared a one-time national celebration to calm the fears of Italian Americans and ease diplomatic relations with Italy.

“Italians who immigrated America focused mainly on family and work. Most were unskilled laborers in mines, farms, factories and built our infrastructure of roads, bridges, dams and tunnels. They have greatly contributed to the fabric of this nation of many cultures and deserve to be celebrated. This holiday decision should be rescinded, and our City Administration should work with both the Italian Americans and Indigenous people on a plan to celebrate both heritages and cultures, on different days.”