Unfair and partial — that’s how Italian-Americans view Oberlin’s move to denounce Columbus Day.
An effort to replace the October holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day has been tabled in view of a complaint by Basil Russo, national president of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America and chairman of the Cleveland Columbus Day Parade Committee.
Oberlin is positioned to become the first Ohio city to scrap the day honoring explorer Christopher Columbus in favor of a day honoring American Indians.
Dozens of people attended a July 3 city council meeting at which the change could have gone up for a final vote. Instead, the issue has been put on hold until Aug. 21 while council recesses for the summer.
Russo said Columbus Day is the vehicle by which Italian-Americans address their patriotism to the United States, and a way to confront the biases and prejudices they have faced since the 1800s.
Taking aim at progressive descriptions of Columbus as a slave trader who wreaked genocide upon the native people of Haiti, he said it is “patently unreasonable and unfair” to judge any historical figure by subjecting them to the standards and values that exist in today’s society. “They must be judged within the context of which they lived,” he said. “The next resolution will be the abolishment of Presidents Day” because presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners.
Sundance, executive director of the Cleveland American Indian Movement and an Oberlin resident, responded.
“My understanding is that Columbus was a Christian and they had been teaching for millions of years, ‘Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. We’re are judging him by the same standards by the ones he was taught,” he said. ” I understand there is a need for an Italian Heritage Day (but) we don’t support propaganda and taking historic fact and making excuses for why they happened.”
Russo said “promoting one group’s interest by trampling on the right of another seems to be a very un-American thing to do.”
He clarified that the people he represents don’t intend to be disrespectful of Oberlin’s community. They support the creation of Indigenous People’s Day so long as it is not at the expense of Columbus Day.
He also took issue with the city’s lack of outreach. A group of American Indians were included in writing the resolution while the Italian-American community was not.
Russo said that if Oberlin is “sincere in wanting to be fair and impartial,” Italian-Americans must be allowed them a part in the decision-making.
“This community has long developed a reputation of tolerance and inclusion, yet you choose to abandon all of those principals by enacting a piece of legislation that is harmful and disrespectful to the interest of one of the largest minority groups in this country,” Russo said. “We’d like to see a resolution of this issue that satisfies the issues of everyone concerned and not create a situation where there is one winner and one loser. Our system shouldn’t work that way.”
When asked by councilwoman Sharon Soucy whether anyone against the resolution was from Oberlin, no one raised a hand.
“This is a uniquely Oberlin resolution,” she explained. “I’m willing to support tabling this, but I don’t want this vote to be misunderstood. I’m committed to the resolution.”
Councilman Kelley Singleton wanted to cast a vote at the meeting but ultimately agreed to table the resolution.
“We’ve heard from people that have come out against this, but I haven’t heard from anyone in Oberlin that is against this,” Singleton said. “I take that as the city itself and citizens are in favor.”
Tony Mealy, a member of the Oberlin planning commission, proposed moving Indigenous Peoples Day to a day other than Columbus Day to avoid the controversy altogether. He offered the day after Thanksgiving, currently a paid holiday in the city.
His suggestion was met by applause.
Sundance reminded council of the worldwide movement to establish Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day. “We are not alone in this,” he said.
“It is not a movement to denigrate Italians or Italian-Americans,” Sundance continued. “It’s a movement to talk about what the truth is, and the truth is that if we honor a mass murderer, what does that say about us?”
Morning Dove, an Oberlin resident, echoed his request: “We cannot be invisible anymore.”
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.