Columbus Day was a Battle in the 90's History Wars, TooRoundup
tags: culture war, Columbus Day, public history, teaching history
Cynthia C. Prescott is professor of history at the University of North Dakota. She is the author of Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory.
Another Columbus Day is upon us. The first official U.S. celebration of Columbus came in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of his journey. Chicago hosted the famous World’s Columbian Exposition to celebrate it the following year. Italian Americans, facing discrimination, actively advocated for and organized Columbus Day celebrations to symbolize Italian contributions to the Americas.
In 1934, the Knights of Columbus, an international Roman Catholic fraternal organization, was instrumental in persuading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Columbus Day a holiday. It was designated a federal holiday in 1968.
But then, in the 1990s, the tides shifted. Because of activism by Native American groups, many Americans began to recognize Columbus Day as a symbol of colonialism and conquest. Debates about Columbus’s legacy and the holiday broadened to focus on other questions about public memory, including depictions of race in public monuments in the American West.
How we remember the past became hotly contested as the culture wars between liberals and the ascendant New Right raged through the 1990s before quieting down. Last year’s racial justice demonstrations revived questions about the Columbus Day holiday and public monuments. As these debates continue, the History Wars of the 1990s can show us that compromise and accommodation can temporarily defuse controversy — but tempt us to postpone the harder work of seeking justice and truth.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan called for a nationwide celebration to mark the 1992 quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival in what Europeans labeled a “New World.” Conservatives pointed to Columbus’s “discovery” as a foundation of American greatness. Native activists — empowered by the American Indian Movement and pan-Indian organizing dating to the civil rights movement — embraced new scholarship that challenged traditional narratives of European discovery and colonization, instead labeling them conquest and genocide.
In both scholarly and popular circles in the early 1990s, debates about the legacy of Columbus and of westward expansion became important aspects of the History Wars.
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