Turning back the “Discoverer”

The hosts discuss the conflict over San Francisco’s Columbus Quincentennial celebration in 1992 – when Italian-Americans fought to celebrate a man they saw as a national hero, while Native American groups protested the elevation of a conquerer. Sam Diener – who protested the planned parade – weighs in.

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ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

It was 522 years ago this week that Christopher Columbus came ashore in the Bahamas. And ever since, people have been struggling to define just what that event meant. For the first 300 years, he was only one in a sea of European explorers. But in the early decades of US history, a bestselling biography helped elevate Columbus above the rest.

ROLENA ADORNO: So what emerges is this sole heroic figure who has to work against the interests of others.

ED: These days, Columbus has been taken down more than a few notches. In some high school history classrooms this fall, in fact, he’s even being put on trial for mass murder.

STUDENT AS QUEEN ISABELLA: We gave him money for spices and gold. We didn’t give it for him to shed blood and kill all those people.

ED: Today on BackStory, Christopher Columbus’s long and twisted journey through history.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

DAN RATHER: 500 years ago today, Christopher Columbus landed on a Caribbean island thinking he was off the coast of Asia. He found–

BRIAN: This is a CBS News report from October 12, 1992. Columbus Day.

DAN RATHER: Was he a genius, a tyrant, or both? As John Blackstone reports, the argument is gaining momentum today.

BRIAN: Ground zero for that argument was San Francisco. Columbus Day was a big deal for the city’s Italian American community. They’d been celebrating it since 1869. There was a parade with floats and marching bands and local politicians mugging for the crowd. Italian American girls competed to be crowned Queen Isabella.

PETER: And of course, there was also Christopher Columbus. Each year a reenactor represented the great navigator himself, complete with sword and gold cross. And for the 500th anniversary, the coordinating committee had something special planned. Columbus would arrive not by plane, train, or automobile, but by boat, just like in olden times.

JOHN BLACKSTONE: Joseph Cervetto was all dressed up and ready to wade ashore triumphantly as part of the festivities in San Francisco yesterday.

BRIAN: But when Cervetto’s boat got close to shore on the big day, his crew noticed a problem. There was a crowd of around 4,000 protesters lining the waterfront. They were part of a coalition led in part by the American Indian movement, and they held signs with slogans like, “End 500 years of racism!” and “No to slavery and genocide.” They were there to stop Columbus from landing.

PETER: One of those protesters was a man named Sam Diener. He was on shore handing out pamphlets and he remembers other protesters bobbing out into the bay in boats. He called it a peace navy.

SAM DIENER: This motley collection of canoes and kayaks and sailboats with signs and banners, and folks crisscrossing the bay ready to greet any ship that came in with the Columbus actor.

JOHN BLACKSTONE: The welcoming party was so unfriendly that Columbus just waved from way out beyond the breakwater and kept on sailing.

MALE SPEAKER: Maybe next year he might show up.

SAM DIENER: There was an announcement that came out that the folks who were organizing the Columbus landing had decided not to run the gauntlet of the peace navy and not to land at Aquatic Park after all. And a big cheer came from the crowd. And basically at that point, people hugged each other and congratulated each other, and we dispersed.

PETER: Unfortunately, the day didn’t end so peacefully. After Columbus turned around, most of the protesters, like Sam, went their separate ways. But a few hundred headed over to the official parade, which wound through a heavily Italian part of town. According to news reports, that’s when things got out of hand.

BRIAN: Some protesters threw raw eggs at parade floats. Others shouted, “Mass murdering pig!” at the Columbus reenactor, who had– yep– finally made it to land. A few even threw Molotov cocktails.

Some paraders fought back, leading to fights in the street. In the end, police arrested 40 demonstrators for disrupting the parade and inciting riot.

PETER: National newspapers and TV networks picked up the story. It was the first major Columbus Day protest to get this kind of widespread coverage. And for many Americans, it was their first real exposure to the idea of Columbus as a villain.

SAM DIENER: I remember also going home on the bus talking with this older Italian American woman who was just befuddled and confused and a little bit hurt by all these protests. And she was like, why are you protesting Columbus? Are you anti-Italian? What is this? And it disturbed her.

And that was interesting to me to encounter a previous generation’s view of Columbus. And what Columbus for her meant was about her Italian pride, not having ever been exposed to the idea that Columbus committed horrible crimes.

PETER: For the rest of the hour today on BackStory, we’re going to look at the ways this one man has meant so many things to so many different people. From his transformation into the figure of Columbia way back in the founding period to the celebration of his origins by immigrants a century later, we’ll look at the ways generations of Americans have discovered, and rediscovered, Columbus.