Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has pushed for months to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus, seen by many as a symbol of racism and oppression. And yet thousands of city employees had Monday as a paid holiday named for the explorer.
The observance of the holiday comes as the nation grapples with its racism and President Donald Trump has built his reelection campaign in part around a vow to preserve controversial monuments, including those remembering Confederate generals.
The statue of Columbus in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza — now boarded up with plywood — has been a flash point since June, when gatherings of residents who wanted to defend it from protesters grew violent. On Monday, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer and former New York mayor, greeted Trump supporters and posed for photos in front of the statue before his “Italian Americans for Trump” rally.
And even as it closed city offices in honor of Columbus, the Kenney administration is fighting in court to remove the monument, which to many represents atrocities Columbus led against Indigenous people.
Many residents called the city’s observance of the holiday hypocritical.
Why Philly residents are upset
Whether people were in favor of Columbus Day or renaming it as Indigenous Peoples' Day, they all seemed to have the same question on social media Monday: How can the city push for the Columbus statue to be removed while also offering employees a paid holiday in recognition of the same man? Some asked why the city couldn’t just keep the holiday, but instead call the day Indigenous Peoples' Day.
Mabel Negrete, of Indigenous descent from Chile, said she was upset when she received a text update from Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management last week about “services available on Columbus Day.” As executive director of Indigenous Peoples' Day Philly Inc., she had worked to speak up about the true history of this country and Columbus’s legacy, and had thought city leaders were finally listening.
“I am sure people are happy to have a day off because they are probably working hard, but on the other hand it is hypocritical,” said Negrete, who spoke at a Philadelphia Historical Commission Zoom meeting in favor of removing the statue. “It’s messed up that it’s calling for Columbus Day as a city because that is really a slap in the face.”
Many in South Philadelphia’s Italian community have shown strong support for the statue, even putting up a legal fight to block the city’s plan to remove it.
George Bochetto, a lawyer representing a group of South Philadelphia residents fighting to keep the statue in Marconi Plaza, argues that Columbus’ legacy does not include enslavement and the forcible removal of indigenous people, as the city contends in its justification to remove the statue.
“I also don’t think it’s a wise idea to rush to judgment as the mayor has regarding all of the inflammatory, and frankly completely false accusations against Christopher Columbus that he has made,” Bochetto said. “The better course is to maintain Columbus Day as a holiday, and if there is momentum and public support for an Indigenous People holiday they should have one of those, too. Why does one have to exclude the other? Why can’t there be both?”
In response to questions about removing the statue but keeping the holiday, the Kenney administration said city holidays are dictated by labor contracts.
“We recognize that Columbus Day is an important symbol for many Italian Americans, including those in our city; and that many others view it as an unnecessary honor for a man with a gruesome role in history,” said 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.”
Why is Columbus Day a city holiday?
Cox said the Kenney administration cannot change holidays unilaterally because they are set by contracts with the city’s labor unions.
“Any changes to the list of city holidays — including an official renaming of the holiday that falls on the second Monday of October — would need to be agreed upon by the unions in contract negotiations,” Cox said.
But although the holiday is officially still called Columbus Day, the Kenney administration acknowledged that there are “complicated feelings about the holiday, especially considering ongoing plans to relocate a statue honoring the same man.”
That Columbus Day designation is not universal across city government, however. The Free Library of Philadelphia lists the holiday on its website as Indigenous Peoples' Day. The library has its own board of trustees that can make policy decisions.
Will the city change the holiday in the future?
It is possible that Columbus Day could cease to be a city government holiday as early as next year.
Contracts with all four of the city’s labor unions are set to expire in June, and the Kenney administration has signaled a willingness to reconsider the holiday during union contract negotiations.
“As with many subjects in city government, there are processes that must be followed in order to make changes that impact the entire workforce,” Cox said.
What about the state and other local governments?
Pennsylvania state employees also have a holiday on Columbus Day. The state’s holiday schedule “aligns with most federally recognized holidays” and is also tied to labor contracts, said Lyndsay Kensigner, a spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf.
Columbus Day is also listed as an official holiday in Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties. In Chester County, the day is a floating holiday that employees can choose to take off or save for later use, said county spokesperson Rebecca Brain.
As of 2019, 10 states and more than 100 cities observed some form of Indigenous Peoples' Day. In Philadelphia, City Council approved a resolution in 2011 that recognizes the second Saturday of October as Indigenous Peoples' Day.
What is the status of the Columbus statue in South Philly?
The statue has been boxed up with plywood since June.
The Philadelphia Art Commission voted in August to remove the statue and place it in storage while the city considered a better location for it, but a judge halted the removal after supporters of the statue sued the city.
Another Columbus monument, at Penn’s Landing, owned by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., is also boarded up at its base while the organization determines what to do with it.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.