This article was originally published by CommonWealth Magazine on June 25, 2020.
The modern-day holiday has an inglorious history.
by Patrick Breen
AS STATUES OF Christopher Columbus are toppled (or beheaded), from St. Paul to Richmond to Boston, Americans are beginning to question the motive for raising certain historical actors to mythical status. Though almost every American will recognize Columbus’s name, the origins of the calendar-recognized October holiday remain insidiously unfamiliar to most people.
While most arguments in favor of ending the tributes to Columbus focus on the history of the carnage he directed at indigenous people on the Caribbean islands where he landed, unknown to most is the link between the Columbus Day holiday and a much more recent figure whose views also didn’t exactly align with the principles of democratic self-governance we lean toward celebrating.
To truly understand Columbus Day, one must learn about an important name in Italian-American history: Generoso Pope.
In 1937, following the popularity and success of newspaper magnate Generoso Pope’s New York City Columbus Day Parade, President Franklin Roosevelt declared October 12th a national holiday commemorating Christopher Columbus’s “discovery of North America.” Although the Italian-born, Brasilia-affiliated explorer sailing under the Spanish Empire failed to ever set foot on the North American continent, Italians in America had accrued a kinship to the famed navigator.
While Pope’s Columbus Day Parade (starting in 1929) was not the first celebration of Columbus that New York had seen, his would quickly become a tradition there. While the establishment of a formal Columbus Day may seem to be an outwardly straightforward process, a deeper dive into Pope’s involvement with powerful political players reveals a profound meaning of the holiday that extends beyond the mere celebration of Columbus himself.
During the Depression Era, Pope was considered one of the most impactful political power brokers within the Democratic Party, and he would eventually be appointed the head of the Italian division within the Democratic National Committee by President Roosevelt himself. Pope owned seven Italian-language newspapers as well as the radio station WHOM, and his flagship paper, Il Progresso Italo-Americano, was the largest Italian-language newspaper in the United States with a circulation nearing 200,000 copies (he had, notably, purchased the paper from a lesser-known owner for the modern-day equivalent of $261 million).
The source of Pope’s political power resided in his influence over the Italian-American voting bloc through his newspaper empire, as Italian immigrants depended on his papers for a sense of community and for news written in their native language. Galvanizing the Italian voting bloc, Pope played a pivotal role in securing elections for various New York City politicians and judges.
But Pope also played a significant role in world affairs: He was considered one of the most influential fascist propagandists in the US for Mussolini’s Italian regime. To provide a few significant examples of his fascist status, Pope was a member of the fascist Lictor Federation and its predecessor, the Fascist League of North America (FLNA); he employed multiple known fascists; he was photographed performing a fascist salute in Rome in 1937; lastly, he was awarded the honorary title of Grand Officer of the Crown of Italy for his service to fascism in America.
Following the FLNA’s disbandment in 1929, the type of propaganda that was perpetuated within the US began to shift from the domain of politics to that of culture, bolstering Italian nationalistic sentiments in immigrants and second-generation Italian-Americans to create, as one history of early 20th century Italian immigrants put it, a people “spiritually tied to fascist Italy by linguistic [and cultural] bonds.”
Following his first successful Columbus Day parade, Pope met in March 1930 with FDR, then governor of New York, to discuss the potential for a state holiday in celebration of Columbus. Although the idea was received favorably, Pope lacked the necessary political capital to get it enacted.
Four years later, following Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential victory, the fascist newspaper kingpin petitioned the president to reconsider his previous stance on the Columbus Day holiday. In a nod to Pope’s prolonged help to FDR through consistently favorable coverage in his papers, as well as to acknowledge recent race-based hate crimes committed against Italian immigrants and a sign of appreciation for their turnout in the recent election, President Roosevelt declared October 12th a national holiday. With the establishment of Columbus Day, Generoso Pope had succeeded in solidifying Christopher Columbus’s place in US history and within the minds of Italian-Americans as a near-mythic entity. Columbus Day and Pope’s Columbus Day Parade were both founded with fascist ideologies in mind, which was clear and ever-present at the New York City parades prior to World War II. At the 1936 parade, according to one account, prominent politicians were implored by anti-fascists not to attend, as “local fascist papers have announced that uniformed Fascisti will participate in military formation.” In 1937, when FDR declared Columbus Day a federal holiday, spectators at the subsequent parade allegedly cheered loudly and raised their hands in the infamous fascist salute when Italy’s fascist anthem, “Giovinezza,” was played. The next year’s parade, the New York Times reported, saw spectators shouting “Viva Mussolini” along the route.
When Mussolini’s Italy declared war on the US on December 11, 1941, hundreds of known fascist sympathizers were quickly incarcerated by the government for their enemy activities. Fortunately for Pope, in the weeks prior to the war’s declaration, he had begun distancing himself from Mussolini’s fascism and even publicly declared “fealty to the US” in an October 1940 New York Times article. Though many of these incarcerated fascists were his known associates, Pope continued advising FDR and the Democratic National Committee regarding Italian-Americans, particularly during the 1944 election. Meet the Author
After all of this, I am left pondering whether the creation of Columbus Day as a federal holiday was truly a win for Italians—as the Knights of Columbus had once suggested—or simply a victory for fascism.