On March 14, 1891, an armed mob of thousands stormed a New Orleans prison and brutally murdered 11 Italian immigrants. Outrage over the savage killings directly led President Benjamin Harrison to establish the first national Columbus Day just months later, in 1892.
For Italian Americans, the holiday became a symbol of hope and a chance to honor those who lost their lives. Yet today, Columbus and the holiday named for him face a rising backlash.
Lynching Shocks the World
On March 14, 1891, a mob numbering between 6,000 to 8,000 people descended on the Parish Prison in New Orleans, Louisiana. They were seeking vengeance for the murder of police chief David Hennessy, who was shot by an unknown assassin a year earlier in 1890.
With no suspects convicted for the crime, Hennessy’s dying words implicated Italian immigrants, uttering a racial slur against them. Although a grand jury indicted 19 Italian suspects, three were tried and acquitted, with two other cases ending in mistrial.
Lacking justice through legal means, the mob took matters into their own hands. Smashing through the prison doors, they dragged out 11 Italian and Sicilian immigrants being held as suspects.
The Times-Picayune reported the next day that the victims were “riddled with bullets” and “their dead bodies were mutilated.” Some were hung from lamp posts and shot dozens of times while others had ropes tied around their necks and were dragged through the streets.
The horrific murders became known as the 1891 New Orleans lynchings, the largest mass lynching in American history.
Global outrage ensued over the racially motivated killings. But The New York Times praised the mob’s actions in an editorial titled “Chief Hennessy Avenged”, calling the victims “desperate ruffians and murderers. These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.”
Diplomatic Crisis Leads to Columbus Day
The brutal murders of 11 Italian immigrants created an international diplomatic crisis between Italy and the United States. Italy was a newly unified country at the time and the lynchings threatened relations with the wave of Italian migrants arriving in America.
To resolve tensions, President Benjamin Harrison declared the first national Columbus Day observance in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. The proclamation was an effort to appease Italian Americans and recognize Christopher Columbus as a symbol of their heritage and contributions.
“For so many people across our country, that first Columbus Day was a way to honor the lives that had been lost and to celebrate the hope, possibilities, and ingenuity Italian Americans have contributed to our country since before the birth of our republic,” stated President Biden in a 2022 Columbus Day proclamation, referencing the 1891 lynchings.
Indeed, Columbus Day originated specifically to pay tribute to Italian American identity following one of the darkest episodes of racism against their community.
Little Palermo: Italian Migration to New Orleans
To understand the context of the 1891 lynchings, it’s important to examine the history of Italian immigration to New Orleans.
Beginning in the 1870s, thousands of immigrants from Italy and Sicily flocked to New Orleans, forming vibrant communities and finding work as merchants, fishermen and longshoremen. By the 1890s, one New Orleans neighborhood was even nicknamed “Little Palermo” for its concentration of Italian migrants.
Around 20,000 Italians called New Orleans home by the time David Hennessy was murdered in 1890, increasing friction with other ethnic groups. Prejudice towards Italian immigrants manifested in dangerous stereotypes of criminality that fanned the flames of vigilantism after Hennessy’s unsolved murder.
Murder of David Hennessy
On October 15, 1890, New Orleans police chief David Hennessy was shot by several shotgun-wielding assassins while walking home from work. Hennessy returned fire and managed to shoot one of the attackers before collapsing.
When asked who did this to him, Hennessy purportedly responded “Dagoes” — a racist slur used against Italians and other immigrants. The injured police chief died the next day.
A sensational murder trial gripped New Orleans for months. Nineteen Italian immigrants were indicted though no clear evidence linked them to the crime. Ultimately, mistrials and acquittals resulted for each suspect — but deep anti-Italian prejudices remained.
Given the slur and accusations Hennessy lobbed against Italians with his dying breath, it’s clear bigotry was a factor in both his murder and the eventual lynchings it spawned.
Legacy of the Lynchings
The 1891 New Orleans lynchings left an indelible stain on Louisiana and America for the racist massacre of 11 immigrants.
No one was ever charged or faced justice for the mob killings. But they propelled the establishment of Columbus Day and highlighted the urgent need for multicultural tolerance and rule of law in an immigrant nation.
For Italian Americans, Columbus became a symbol of hope — a historical figure from their homeland who helped launched the chain of events that led to America itself. Columbus Day represented a chance to celebrate Italian heritage and contributions in the wake of horrific discrimination.
Origins of Columbus Day
Even before it became a federal holiday in 1937, the first Columbus Day on October 12, 1892 marked a turning point for Italian American inclusion and pride at a time of intense prejudice.
As Italian immigration boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Columbus Day parades and events strengthened cultural identity and connection to their ancestry.
Monuments and statues honoring Columbus arose nationwide in the 1920s, firmly establishing him as an icon for Italian Americans. From San Francisco to New York City, Columbus emerged as a unifying figure and a stand-in for the millions who came to America from Italy. For immigrants, Columbus Day offered proof their presence was valued.
Columbus Day statues face backlash
Today, controversy surrounds Columbus Day and its namesake explorer. Critics argue Columbus should not be celebrated in light of mistreatment of indigenous peoples during colonialism. Vandalism and removal of Columbus statues have increased amid racial reckoning.
For supporters, Columbus remains a foundational figure in Italian American history, regardless of debates about his legacy. They see attacks on Columbus as attacks on the Italian American experience.
There are signs of compromise, such as Indigenous Peoples’ Day expanding as an alternative holiday. But for Italian Americans, preserving Columbus is personal. Holidays like Columbus Day and St. Patrick’s Day highlight how ethnic heritage endures in America.
Why Columbus Day Matters to Italian Americans
Columbus Day recognizes the discrimination Italian immigrants faced and their resilience in forging an American identity.
In that sense, the holiday has profound meaning as a symbol of overcoming bigotry and validating Italian American contributions. Celebrations of Columbus kept alive the memory of victims like those 11 lynched in New Orleans.
Columbus became a cultural hero embodying the Italian immigrant struggle and hope for acceptance in a hostile land — an experience echoed by immigrants of all backgrounds.
So for Italian Americans, attacks on Columbus Day are seen as attacks on a community that itself was once targeted, marginalized and violently punished based on heritage. Understanding the discriminatory history behind Columbus Day is key to seeing why it remains so important.
Columbus Day’s origins trace directly back to one of the most disgraceful acts of racist violence in U.S. history — the 1891 New Orleans lynchings. Outrage over the mob massacre of 11 Italian immigrants led President Harrison to establish the holiday in 1892 to ease diplomatic tensions and honor Italian American identity.
For descendants of Italian immigrants, Columbus Day celebrates how their community overcame bigotry to weave their heritage into the American fabric. Whatever Columbus’ legacy, Italian Americans embrace the holiday as a symbol of their past, present and future in America.