Pittsfield School Committee stands by decision to rename Columbus Day

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PITTSFIELD — The School Committee navigated through turbulence Wednesday before deciding that it wouldn't reinstate Columbus Day in the school calendar.

Dozens of Italian-American residents pushed committee members to change their minds — "It has divided Pittsfield," Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi told them — but members of the School Committee said their duty is more to the children of Pittsfield Public Schools than to an opinionated public. They said Christopher Columbus would retain his place in history courses but they couldn't, in good conscience, ask city children to celebrate him with a holiday.

"I want to be someone who corrects the record," said Mayor Linda Tyer, a member of the School Committee. "I can't perpetuate a myth that has been debunked."

School Committee members took time during the meeting to respond to backlash that has spilled into public discourse in recent months. The controversy stems from a committee vote in January to rename the second Monday in November as Indigenous Peoples Day.

The controversy stirred a deep conversation surrounding who society chooses to honor with a holiday, and what to do when their flaws bump against modern-day values. Italian-American groups repeatedly told public officials they felt disparaged and hurt by the move.

Tyer told residents crowding the council chambers that she'd be happy to shepherd discussions around a possible compromise, such as calling the day "heritage day" in honor of Italian-Americans and Native Americans.

But, in the end, School Committee members said they couldn't abide by a day that, for many, equates to the erasure of Native Americans.

School Committee member William Cameron called Columbus "the inaugurator of the New World genocide." He said Columbus, indeed, also precipitated a wave of positive European values — truth and justice among them. He said there is nothing just or honest about "forcing children to celebrate" shameful acts, as to honor Columbus would recognize the myth and not the man.

Disputable accounts aside, Cameron said historians don't debate that Columbus was a brutal man who wielded power with physical mutilation.

"What Columbus did may once have seemed laudable," he said. "This is 2018."

School Committee member Dan Elias assured the audience that he listened carefully to community criticism. He said he already had done research before taking the January vote, but he did more in light of the backlash. He said "the more I researched Columbus, the more I disliked," and also the more he became aware of how entwined Columbus is with Italian heritage.

He didn't ask for this decision, he said, but "we arrived here."

"We have to weigh a person's contributions with their faults," he said. "Knowing what I know, I can't support anything with the name Columbus."

Columbus was "an absolute horror of a human being," he said, and it's not a reflection on Italian-Americans.

"We judge by the individual," he said.

School Committee member Cynthia Taylor said that to hold up someone like Columbus for children to emulate is not good policy.

School Committee member Dennis Powell responded to the many in the audience who said the committee pandered to revisionists looking to erase history so that some feel better. Powell said history already was rewritten when it left indigenous people largely out of the picture.

"Teaching real history," he said, "is paramount."

Chairwoman Katherine Yon told the crowd that the divide in the community weighed heavily on her heart.

"Nobody wants to see the community split apart," she said, but "we do have to put our judgment into play."

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

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