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NYC schools rename Columbus Day in effort to please both Italians and Indigenous people

Students waited in line to enter a New York City public high school in March.
Students waited in line to enter a New York City public high school in March.Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

NEW YORK — In a possibly futile effort to please both Italian Americans who celebrate Christopher Columbus and racial justice advocates who accuse him of genocide, the New York City public school system has designated Oct. 11 as Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.

The double-naming of the school holiday happened Tuesday after a calendar for the 2021-22 school year was initially posted with Oct. 11 labeled simply Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The change drew swift condemnation from elected officials, including Democratic state senators Diane Savino and Joe Addabbo, who called the renaming of Columbus Day “block-headed" and said it did “terrible disservice to a difficult and complex conversation.”

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The city Department of Education then backtracked and changed the name again.

“Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day will celebrate the contributions and legacies of Italian Americans and recognize that Native people are the first inhabitants of the land that became our country,” department spokesperson Danielle Filson said in a statement.

The legacy of Columbus has drawn scrutiny in recent years, with cities and states around the country renaming the second Monday in October to honor the Indigenous populations that were decimated by violence and disease after Europeans arrived in the Americas.

But Columbus has fans in New York, where tens of thousands of Italian Americans march through Manhattan in a show of ethnic pride every Columbus Day.

“We have to honor that day as a day to recognize the contributions of all Italian Americans, so of course the day should not have been changed arbitrarily,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

The Democratic mayor, who speaks frequently of his own Italian heritage, said that neither he nor Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter was consulted about the initial switch to just Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Asked about the matter at a virtual news briefing, de Blasio said the process of changing the name wasn't right, “but the end result, it’s going to be a day to honor Italian American heritage, a day to honor Indigenous peoples, I think that’s a good way forward.”

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New York state's Italian American governor, who has clashed with de Blasio throughout the time both men have been in office, saw it differently.

“I support an Indigenous peoples' holiday," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at his own briefing. “But I also support Columbus Day. You can have an Indigenous peoples' day without intruding on Columbus Day, and that is the spirit of New York.”

Cuomo, a Democrat, said Columbus Day will remain a state holiday.