PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local Italian groups feel insulted that the School Committee would erase Christopher Columbus from the school calendar.
A number of members from such groups as the Italian American Club and the Sons of Italy pleaded with the City Council Tuesday night, asking them to urge the School Committee to reconsider renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.
The School Committee voted in January to change the name of the holiday on the second Monday in October in its school calendar because they felt Columbus wasn't worthy of being honored.
Local Italian groups agree that Columbus was controversial but they also said he was accomplished and made a huge impact on the world. They feel eliminating the holiday is an insult to the Italian heritage.
"Regardless of which textbook you believe, Christopher Columbus deserves to be honored, deserves to be debated," said Marietta Rapetti Cawse.
Maryann Sherman said Columbus was responsible for bringing European culture to the new world more than any other explorer. She said he brought arts and sciences to the Americas and she denies critics who say Columbus was responsible for committing genocide. The day is to celebrate all of the contributions Italians have brought to America, she said.
"His story is not a fairly tale. It is a story written by his own hand and should continue to be told," she said.
Kathy Catelotti of the Sons of Italy said the holiday is important for children to learn about the age of exploration. But, she feels Columbus is being singled out. She said too often people are judging him based on the "political pro formas" of today without placing his actions in the context of the times.
Donna Merletto, president of the Italian American Club, said she was outraged by the School Committee's decision. She felt it was a move motivated by political correctness rather than having an open and honest discussion about the history.
"Rather than taking a lesson and use it to teach and enlighten, they choose to rewrite history," she said.
The School Committee had made the decision to switch the name because they felt Columbus was given credit for things he hadn't done, such as discovering America, and instead was responsible for the killing of those who lived here first. The holiday was based on a false telling of history, the School Committee members felt.
"Historians tell us a different story, a new truth. As a public educational institute, it is our civic responsibility to educate our nearly 5,600 students to the best of our ability. What we teach our students about our nation's history needs to be factual. It is long recognized by historians that Columbus did not discover America. The Native Americans were the first immigrants to North America and our country. They were followed by Leif Ericson and then Columbus, who we now know was the first to Europeanize what he thought was India," School Committee member Cynthia Taylor said at the time.
The movement to switch the name has been growing throughout the country. It started in California in 1992 but only really got momentum in the last handful of years. In 2016, the Massachusetts towns of Cambridge, Amherst, and Northampton all made the switch. As did the entire state of Vermont (which had never observed Columbus Day as a state holiday).
Rapetti Cawse said the Italian community doesn't have a problem with a holiday to celebrate indigenous people. But, she doesn't want it to come at the expense of Italian heritage.
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