In the nation’s capital, there is no Columbus Day. The D.C. Council voted to replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2019. And the capital is certainly not alone. D.C. joined an already-growing list of places that no longer observe the day, even though it remains a federal holiday.
Columbus Day falls on the second Monday of October, commemorating the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492, when he landed in the Bahamas on Oct. 12. This year, it’s slated for Oct. 11. And as it stands, it’s one of 11 official “city holidays” in Philadelphia, when city government buildings and services close and staff are given a day off.
In 1990, South Dakota became the first state to rename Columbus Day. Over the years, more than a dozen other states have followed suit, from Maine (now observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day) to Hawaii (now observing Discoverers’ Day), along with an even larger list of cities. One that stands out: Columbus, Ohio, a city named after the very Italian-born explorer that the holiday commemorates.
Many are wondering: Will Philadelphia be next? It’s a question that was posed on our Curious Philly platform, where readers send in questions and our reporters track down answers. And it’s a timely one. A Christopher Columbus statue is expected to move out of South Philly after the Art Commission approved its removal. The marble statue has stood tall in Marconi Plaza since 1976.
City officials proposed the move, saying it should be relocated “in recognition of the fact that Columbus’ legacy includes the enslavement, forcible removal, and the devastation of the Indigenous people that he encountered, and that in this current moment in our country’s history, the statue can no longer be displayed on public property.”
Opponents, however, argue the marble statue celebrates Italian American culture. There’s currently a legal battle to keep it in its original place.
As exhibited with the statue, a change to Columbus Day wouldn’t likely fly without opposition. And city leaders are well aware of this. But they say they’re open to change.
“We know that Columbus Day is an important symbol for many Italian Americans, including those in our city,” says city spokesperson Lauren Cox. “Ultimately, each individual is able to make their own choice about which holiday(s) they do or do not celebrate personally. In terms of its future as a City holiday — where City buildings and services are closed — the administration would be open to changes.”
Just don’t expect to see any big shifts in the near future.
The city says there are no plans to alter the list of city holidays for the remainder of fiscal year 2021, which ends June 30.
But what about the next year? All official city holidays are outlined in the collective bargaining agreements made between the mayor’s office and the city’s four municipal unions. Any changes to those holidays must be agreed upon by all parties. To do away with Columbus Day and/or replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, one of the city’s four municipal unions, or a city administration representative, would need to propose it during contract negotiations. And, again, all unions and the mayor would then need to agree on the change.
Current municipal union contract extensions expire in June 2021. New contracts must be in place before July 1, 2021. That’s when any changes to the holiday schedule would be announced.
“The issue of holidays, not just Columbus Day, is being discussed internally,” says Cathy Scott, president of AFSCME District Council 47.
The three other municipal unions could not be reached for comment. But if the topic is broached during the next round of contract negotiations, the city will consider a change.
There’s very little the average Philadelphia resident can do about this issue. Calling your city councilmembers won’t help, since they don’t decide holidays. But if you feel strongly about this issue, you could try to appeal to the mayor or one of the labor unions directly.
Philadelphia already recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but it’s mostly symbolic. Why? City Council cannot appoint official city holidays, but can only mark observances. (The difference: On official city holidays, services shut down; on others, business carries on as usual.)
In 2011, Council proposed and approved a resolution “recognizing and honoring the achievements, traditions and contributions of American Indians, also known as ‘Indigenous peoples’ of the City of Philadelphia.” Philadelphia’s first Indigenous Peoples’ Day was declared on Oct. 8, 2011, and falls on the first Saturday of every October after that. Yet, without the designation of an official city holiday, few know the recognition exists.
“There are 17 Council members, and any of them can introduce ceremonial proclamations on any topic at any time,” explains Joe Grace, director of communications for the Philadelphia City Council President’s Office. “But only the mayor’s office, in negotiations with its municipal workforce, has the authority to declare city holidays.”
Since those negotiations won’t happen until next year, Columbus Day remains in place, and its future unclear.
“I don’t think anyone can predict how this will turn out, but there’s certainly ... a kind of moral force at work to rename and dissolve the mythic histories that have controlled our thinking about historical events,” says Matt Wray, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University whose research focuses on race and ethnicity. “Columbus is not only charged with being an enslaver but also an architect of racist genocide and a harbinger of massive land theft of Indigenous people.”
One change to the holiday you may see this year, however, is the absence of an organized Columbus Day Parade. Due to the pandemic, the city isn’t issuing permits for any events through at least the end of February 2021.