“We are made by history.” (The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
The 109th annual Columbus Day wreath laying ceremony took place on Monday, Oct. 11, at the Christopher Columbus Memorial Plaza across from Union Station in Washington, D.C. Columbus Day is celebrated on the second Monday in October. The ceremony included presidential and mayoral proclamations; addresses from the embassies of Italy and Spain, and the Youth Essay Contest winner; followed by wreath presentations. The event was sponsored by the National Christopher Columbus Foundation in coordination with the National Park Service with the participation of the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization.
The Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain (also known as Columbus Monument) was carved from Italian marble by Lorado Z. Taft and was erected at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station in 1912. The work depicts a figure of Columbus standing before a ship’s prow with Old World and New World images to either side.
Columbus’s first voyage to the New World, which culminated on Oct 12, 1492, is considered one of the most important events in world history, opening the way for the widespread European exploration and colonization of the Americas. Columbus was widely venerated in the centuries after his death and Columbus Day was officially designated as a federal holiday on April 30, 1934. The federal District where the ceremony took place of course bears his name.
But in recent years, his legacy has come under scrutiny as scholars focused more attention on some of the negative aspects of his life such as his abuse of the native populations. Indeed, on this same day, D.C., Maryland and Virginia officially observed Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor Native Americans who suffered catastrophic losses following Columbus’s arrival. In his prize winning essay, “Man or Monster,” Joseph Stetson of Steubenville, Ohio, addressed the controversy head-on, noting Columbus’s achievements in the face of incredible odds, and arguing that on balance, Columbus was a man to be honored for his courage and perseverance.
For many, the holiday is a way of both honoring Columbus’s achievements and celebrating Italian-American heritage. More than 15.7 million people in the United States today identify themselves as Italian-Americans. They constitute nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population and are the nation’s fourth largest European ancestry group after the Germans, Irish and English. One of the attendees, Allegra Tartaglia from Silver Spring, Maryland, observes Columbus Day because it “marks our Italian-American history in the United States. Thanks to him, my great grandfather was able to emigrate here as a 16-year-old and start his American dream…. and my American dream.” Anita McBride, vice chair of the National Italian American Foundation, remarked: “It is important for our country to recognize all the the contributions of all the ethnicities that came to this country to build the [diverse] nation to what it is today… and the courage that it took to come to a new world.”
Minister of the Italian Embassy Maurizio Greganti highlighted how Christopher Columbus’s explorations created a bridge between the Old and the New World, irreversibly changing the destiny of humanity and initiating globalization. But he also recognized that in this context we cannot forget the suffering and pain endured by the native populations, who paid a very high price. “Today’s commemorations offer an opportunity to enhance the inestimable contribution that the Italian-American and Italian community has provided and continues to provide to the success of this great country,” he added. He was joined on the dais by Santiago Cabanas, the Spanish Ambassador to the United States.
President Joe Biden’s proclamation which was read from the podium concluded: “Let this day be one of reflection — on America’s spirit of exploration, on the courage and contributions of Italian Americans throughout the generations, on the dignity and resilience of Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities, and on the work that remains ahead of us to fulfill the promise of our Nation for all.”
View a slideshow of Jeff Malet’s photos from the 109th annual Columbus Day wreath laying ceremony in D.C. by clicking on the photo icons below.