A Native American monument stands in Eakins Oval Credit: Dave R / Flickr Creative Commons

Updated 1 p.m.

The first recorded celebration of Christopher Columbus Day, honoring the Italian explorer who sailed to the Americas in 1492 for the Catholic rulers of Spain, was in 1792 in New York City. It has since become a widely adopted holiday, and also experienced a pullback.

In recent years, many states and cities have changed how they celebrate the occasion of America’s discovery. Five states call the holiday something else, including Alaska and South Dakota, where it has been officially replaced by celebrations of indigenous people. A Philly state rep wants to add Pennsylvania to that list.

In Philadelphia, the school district stopped recognizing it as a holiday in 2016, but the city has not followed suit. Philadelphians have rallied around the traditional Columbus Day Parade as a way to celebrate Italian heritage.

Perhaps Philly’s greatest honor to the explorer of the 1400s is the massive, miles-long boulevard named for him along the Delaware River.

As Philadelphians of a certain age and longevity know, Columbus Boulevard wasn’t always called that. And there’s a reason the street isn’t even named after the Italian in its entirety. North of Spring Garden, the roadway is still called Delaware Avenue.

In 1989, then-City Council Majority Leader Anna Verna introduced a bill to rename the road Columbus Boulevard. She even got U.S. Rep. Thomas Foglietta to testify in its favor in front of Council.

The monument to Christopher Columbus near Penn’s Landing Credit: Imnop88a / Flickr Creative Commons

The politicians thought the renaming effort would be simple — but they thought wrong. Right away they encountered protest from Native American Philadelphians and the head of the Fishtown Civic Association, who both testified in its opposition.

In 1992, the city came up with a compromise, opting to rename only the southern part of the street — hence the Spring Garden divide we see today. Understandably, indigenous people were not satisfied with the agreement.

“You have to understand what an insult it is to the Indian people,” George Hines, an Apache, told the Inquirer at a protest. “It would be like telling the Jewish people that you were going to honor Adolf Hitler.”

It was so controversial at the time the PennDOT held off on replacing the street signs, unsure that the name change would actually stick. Even when they did replace them to honor Columbus, Philly residents defaced them with graffiti for years.

Columbus monuments in the city have also been the subject of scrutiny. In 2015, Philly activists drafted a petition demanding of then-Mayor Michael Nutter

  • Remove the Columbus obelisk at Columbus Boulevard and Dock Street
  • Take down the statue of Columbus at Marconi Plaza at Broad and Oregon

“It’s just beyond imagination that a human being could be so horrific and inhumane toward other people and then be celebrated,” Michael Coard, a professor and activist behind the petition told 6ABC in 2015. The petition attracted 561 signatures — but failed to enact the change it sought.

Coard went on to suggest Philadelphia rename Columbus Day to indigenous Peoples’ Day. Philadelphia has not made the change.

What to do around Indigenous Peoples Day

We’re a few years removed from all that activism — but folks are still keeping up with the cause. Various groups are producing events meant to honor Native American people. If you want to join in, you’ve got a few local options.

A weekend at the Museum

What: The Museum of the American Revolution is set to honor indigenous people all weekend long. It started with a panel discussion on problematic historical figures, and will continue with storytelling, art exhibits and dance performances — all produced in partnership with the Oneida Indian Nation.

When: Thursday through Monday

Where: The Museum of the American Revolution

A mini festival in Hunting Park

What: The Indigenous celebrations will continue nearly a week after Columbus Day. There are celebrations and teach-ins set for the next Friday and Saturday. One is already sold out — but you can still attend a mini festival offering dance, music, arts and crafts from various local tribes: the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, Mexica and Taino.

When: Oct. 12 and 13

Where: Near the Hunting Park Recreation Center, at 1260 to 1156 W. Hunting Park Ave, 19140.

Know another celebration today? Email tips@billypenn.com and we’ll add it in right quick. 

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...