Italian-Americans urge Pittsfield School Committee to restore Columbus Day

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This story has been modified to remove an incorrect characterization of Columbus as a saint, and to correct the title of Donna Merletto.

PITTSFIELD — History is imperfect, but still, it should be honored.

That's the message that about 30 members of various Italian-heritage groups sent to the School Committee during its meeting Wednesday. They urged committee members to restore Columbus Day in the school calendar. But committee members pushed back, prompting a neighborly exchange about ethnicity, history and compassion.

The debate stems from the committee's vote in January to rename the second Monday in October, a school holiday, as Indigenous Peoples Day. In doing so, they joined dozens of entities around the country, including several states, to replace the day because of Christopher Columbus' controversial human rights record.

In light of Wednesday's public comments, School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said the committee would reconsider the vote during an upcoming meeting.

Like those removing offensive statues from the streets of America, the committee now stands among those who "have chosen to rewrite history," said Donna Merletto, president of the Italian-American Club.

"Your actions are hurtful," she said.

Kathy Catelotti said Columbus is becoming a symbol of everything modern man hates about himself. He was a superior navigator, she said, and that warrants remembering.

"Our students need to know the truthful history of our country — the good and the bad," she said.

Yes, there were others before Columbus, they noted. But "his voyage is the one that changed the world," said Kevin Caira of the Order Sons of Italy in America and president of the commission for social justice.

Columbus Day is a day for all immigrants, Caira said, and he doesn't condone the historical figure's moral failings. Still, he said, "we cannot impose the 21st-century law on a 15th-century event."

After all, he said, the majority of this country's founding fathers owned slaves.

Honor Native Americans, they said, but don't do it by erasing the legacy of Columbus.

"He deserves to be honored. He deserves to be debated," said Marietta Rapetti Cawse, a retired teacher of Italian and social studies. "Among the saints, we are sinners, too."

Drew Herzig, chair of the city's Human Rights Commission, called it a tragedy that the conversation falls down to two oppressed minorities battling for rights to a day. Italians were once discriminated against for their darker skin tone, he said, and Franklin Roosevelt named Columbus Day in a gesture that affirmed the group's whiteness and acknowledged that it had a heritage to be proud of.

Still, he said, perhaps there would be Native Americans in the room fighting for the day if they'd not been killed and marginalized.

"If you do not make this decision based on 21st-century standards, then who will?" Herzig asked.

School Committee member Dan Elias apologized to the crowd for not reaching out before the vote. Still, he said, he didn't cast his vote lightly.

He said Columbus was always a hero to him, until he sat next to a woman of Native American heritage during a class at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He said the two talked extensively about the man's legacy, and he came to see her side of things. He said his vote reflects that experience, and some 18 hours of historical research he did on the topic. He said there are detailed personal accounts, even from his own men, of "horrific behavior" on the part of Columbus.

"It's hard to celebrate a holiday for something like that," he said. "I like heroes. It was disappointing to let one go."

School Committee member Cynthia Taylor, who brought the original measure forward, said she hadn't realized the day meant so much to Italians. She apologized for hurt feelings.

"It was simply a matter of trying to set the record straight," she said.

Dennis Powell, a school committee member and president of the local branch of the NAACP, noted his own Native American heritage. He said that, for peoples of color, history has long been erased and rewritten. The Italians still have Italy and its culture along with it, he said, and the Irish still have Ireland. But the Native Americans have nothing, he said.

"To teach about true history — hard history — requires open minds and change," he said. "I understand what you're saying. I understand it probably more than anyone else in this room."

Amanda Drane cane be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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