The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Columbus, Ohio, once spent $95 million to help celebrate Columbus Day. Now, it’s canceled.

Joggers enjoy the sunshine as they run next to the Scioto River in Columbus, Ohio. (Jay LaPrete/AP)

In 1992, an 88-acre park a couple of miles from downtown Columbus, Ohio, transformed into a floral wonderland. The six-month exhibit was like a cross between a horticulture-obsessed version of Disney’s Epcot and a miniature World’s Fair, featuring a waterfall, a rose garden with 130 varieties, a display of grasses from almost every continent on earth and a “community of nations garden” that “has got to be one of the main roads of heaven,” as The Washington Post described it then. 

It was for Christopher Columbus, billed as America’s “centerpiece” celebration marking the 500th anniversary of his voyage to the New World in 1492. Boycotted by Native Americans, who called attention to Columbus’s abuse of indigenous people in nationwide demonstrations that year, the Ohio celebration came at a price of $95 million.

But this year, the explorer’s namesake city in Ohio is saving a little money: Columbus has canceled its observation of Columbus Day altogether.

The mayor’s office announced the decision in a brief, unceremonious news release Friday, avoiding the politics that have traditionally accompanied changes to the controversial federal holiday in other cities. The mayor’s office has said this decision is not connected to the nationwide movement to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day because of Columbus’s enslavement and exploitation of native people.

Instead, it is because the city lacks funding to give its 8,500 employees the day off on both Columbus Day and Veterans Day, mayor’s office spokeswoman Robin Davis told The Washington Post early Monday. So, the city chose Veterans Day.

“We chose to close on Veterans Day instead of Columbus Day to honor those who have served our country,” Davis said, adding that this will be the first year Columbus closes for Veterans Day on Nov. 12. “In order to be good stewards of taxpayer money, we did not feel it was prudent to add an additional paid holiday.”

Columbus Day has been a federal holiday since 1934. But numerous cities and states have ditched celebrating it since 1992, when Berkeley, Calif., became the first city to rename the holiday Indigenous Peoples Day in favor of recognizing Native Americans. Cincinnati is among the most recent jurisdictions to rename the holiday Indigenous Peoples Day this year after two failed attempts.

“This won’t change history totally, but we’re at the point where we realize calling it Columbus Day is completely wrong,” said Cincinnati City Council member Tamaya Dennard, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. 

President Trump’s proclamations for Columbus Day this year and in 2017 have lacked any acknowledgment of the plight of Native Americans, in contrast to former president Barack Obama, who noted in his 2015 proclamation that we “also recognize the suffering inflicted upon Native Americans and we recommit to strengthening tribal sovereignty and maintaining our strong ties.”

In Columbus, the explorer had been a point of pride in the 19th century and into the 20th, when three statues were erected in his honor over the decades. The one that stands outside City Hall arrived as a gift in 1955 from Genoa, Italy, believed to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus.

But it became the subject of protests last year over Columbus’s enslavement of native people, with the protest’s organizer supporting renaming the city itself.

“Christopher Columbus was an agent of and continues to be a symbol of the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas,” Elissa Washuta, a protester and member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, told the Columbus Dispatch in August 2017.

In fact, Columbus, Ohio, has no real connection to the man himself. It was named after Columbus in 1812, when state lawmakers decided to move the state capital, for travel purposes, to a more central location. But the connection, or lack thereof, to the city’s name remains unclear. According to the book “Columbus: The Story of a City” by historian Ed Lentz, the state lawmaker who lived in that area simply admired Columbus and persuaded fellow lawmakers that his name would make a good name for the capital.

Following the city’s announcement last week that it would not be observing Columbus Day, the group that appeared most irked were Italian Americans, who have traditionally celebrated their heritage on Columbus Day as well. The Columbus Day Italian Parade still continued as usual Sunday.

“If you’re mayor of a city and its name is Columbus, why wouldn’t you capitalize on that?” Joseph Contino, board member of the Columbus Italian Festival, told the Associated Press. “Use this day to celebrate the entire culture, celebrate Italians and indigenous both.”

The Columbus Italian Club posted a link on Facebook to a Dispatch article about the city’s decision not to celebrate Columbus Day with a single thumbs-down emoji as its lone commentary.

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