Upset that the Princeton Council allegedly canceled Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day, which both fall on the second Monday in October, the council was chastised for those actions at its Sept. 30 meeting.
Daniel Guerriero, who is an Italian American, lambasted the Princeton Council for the “bigotry, bias and prejudice” that it exhibited by replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019.
But despite its sizable Italian American population, Princeton never celebrated Columbus Day – a fact that the Princeton Council was quick to point out. Italian immigrants settled in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, and on Humbert Street, off Wiggins Street.
Guerriero said that according to the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, the founder of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, the proposal to eliminate Columbus Day is divisive and based on stereotypes.
While there is no denying that the consequences of colonization had deplorable impacts on Native Americans, the attacks on Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day originated with the Ku Klux Klan, according to Rivers, Guerriero said.
Columbus Day, which was established as a federal holiday in 1968, had its origins in a one-day holiday proclaimed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 – one year after 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans for their alleged role in the murder of the city’s police chief.
Harrison proclaimed Columbus Day as a holiday to show Americans a different side of Italians – “not seen here in Princeton, which I call a town of hate, at least toward Italian Americans,” Guerriero said.
Guerriero also cited Patrick Mason, a Native American, who said that it was “ridiculous” to blame what happened to the Native Americans on Columbus. Mason said it takes away from the real needs of the indigenous peoples community, Guerriero said. Mason is a member of the Knights of Columbus, which is a Catholic fraternal organization.
In response, Princeton Councilwoman Leticia Fraga said the resolution declaring the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day in Princeton did not mention Columbus Day or Christopher Columbus. It was suggested by the town’s Civil Rights Commission “to acknowledge the people who lived here before us,” Fraga said.
The resolution adopted by the Princeton Council in 2019 states that the town “supports the formal institution of Indigenous Peoples Day to explore and celebrate the thriving cultures and values of the indigenous peoples in our region and beyond.”
There was no replacement of Columbus Day or cancellation of Columbus Day, Fraga said. Indigenous Peoples Day was intended to honor and celebrate the indigenous people, she said.
Princeton is a welcoming community and celebrates a special “Welcoming Week” in the fall, Fraga said. It incorporates a culture-sharing day, and the Italian American community participates in it, she said.
Princeton Councilman Dwaine Williamson acknowledged that Italian Americans have suffered discrimination, but emphasized that Princeton never recognized Columbus Day and did not replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Williamson said that criticism of Columbus is not about Italian Americans, but about Columbus himself. One of the difficulties is “how do we recognize the great accomplishments of people and balance that with the wicked things they did,” he said of Columbus.
“The bottom line is, we need to speak truth to power, and if we are going to criticize something, let us know exactly what is being criticized,” Williamson said.
Princeton Councilwoman Michelle Pirone Lambros said that as a descendant of immigrants, who is “100% Italian and whose roots are in Princeton,” she echoed the comments of her fellow Princeton Council members.
“If there is anything that Italian Americans can do to be more engaged,” she would be happy to campaign for it, Pirone Lambros said.