Discovery Day reveals attitudes about immigrants

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BRATTLEBORO — In October 1892, Brattleboro honored the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas by having "all races and classes unite in patriotic expression." The daylong festivities included a "school celebration to unite the public and the parochial schools, the academies and all the district schools of the town."

The day was organized because U.S. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation calling for a new national holiday; he called it "Discovery Day." President Harrison's proclamation stated, "Let the people, so far as possible, cease all toil and devote themselves to such exercise as may best express honor to the discoverer and appreciation of the great achievements of four complete centuries of American life. Columbus stood in his age as the pioneer of progress and enlightenment and it is peculiarly appropriate that the schools be made the center of the day's demonstration. Let the national flag float over every schoolhouse in the country, and the exercises be such as shall impress upon our youth the patriotic duties of American citizenship."

To prepare for the day students learned songs that praised Columbus. They practiced the newly created Pledge of Allegiance that, back in 1892, went like this..."I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

On Discovery Day students from every Brattleboro school marched up Main Street and converged at the high school, the present Municipal Center. All along Main Street businesses decorated for the celebration. A banner draped across the top floor of the Town Hall had an image of a globe with the seven continents on it. Under the banner were red, white and blue decorations and many United States flags. Across the street from the Town Hall, flags of all nations were on display.

In front of the high school, more than 1,100 students formed a hollow square around the flagpole and military veterans raised the United States flag. Students pledged allegiance to the flag and sang patriotic songs.

An address by Vermont Governor Levi Fuller was also read to the students: "The oppressed of all nations have looked with longing eyes upon the American people who have for centuries stood with outstretched arms, welcoming the foreigner to hospitable shores, where all avenues of success are open to loyal hearts, intelligent minds and willing hands."

Some historians have said the original "Discovery Day" wasn't really about Columbus, it was about the massive migration of non-English speaking, non-Protestant people to the United States. From 1870 to 1890 the number of immigrants in the U.S. more than doubled. Most of them didn't speak English and they weren't Protestant. Most were Catholic. They came from Eastern and Southern Europe and they were becoming a powerful political block.

In the 19th century Catholics confronted prejudice everywhere they went. English, Protestant Americans held most positions of power in the country, and they viewed Catholics as "un-American." Catholics found a counter-argument to the "un-American" claim - Christopher Columbus. He was a Catholic who arrived in the Americas well before English Protestants. By embracing Columbus, Catholic immigrants were staking their own claim to America. President Benjamin Harrison was looking to attract the urban Catholic immigrant vote in the upcoming election and "Discovery Day" was a tip of the hat to the growing political presence of these voting immigrants.

At the same time, the influx of immigrants who didn't sound or look like English, Protestant Americans caused many to seek a way to institutionalize patriotism and loyalty in our public schools. The original Discovery Day, with the Pledge of Allegiance and the emphasis on public schools as the cultural melting pot of the United States, wasn't about Christopher Columbus so much as it was about making sure all immigrants learned what it was to be a patriotic American in the 19th century.

As Brattleboro Unitarian Minister Frank Phalen said at the ceremony celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival, "The public school is our chief influence to foster common knowledge, common hopes, common sympathies, and common patriotism. Let us guard it jealously and make it more and more the stronghold of American freedom."

Honoring Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas wasn't mentioned in the local press before 1892 except on just one occasion. On October 17, 1873 there was a front page article published in the Vermont Phoenix from an unnamed author. The author had recently visited Boston and witnessed the firing of canon along the harbor in honor of Columbus' first landing in the Americas. The article went on to denigrate Columbus. At one point the author said there were many people in the United States who were not thankful for Columbus' arrival in the Americas. "The indians never thanked him...the Africans had small ground to be gratified for the slave market he opened...Here are three continents that had no use for him. It is probable that he did open the way to discovery of the New World. If he had waited, however, somebody else would have discovered it - perhaps some Englishman; and then we might have been spared all the old French and Spanish Wars."

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The author presented the prejudice of the day, that people of English ancestry were better than everyone else. He went on to blame the Irish for the potato famine and insulted people who came from Italy and Spain. He also complained about increased immigration and the audacity of women who wanted to vote. It seems the editor who chose to publish this article in 1873 wasn't much interest in uniting all races and classes.

By 1892 that interest seemed to evolve as waves of immigrants caused the Protestant English ruling class to recognize that people from other parts of Europe would form an important voting bloc in the United States.

In the same 1892 edition of the paper that reported on the Discovery Day celebration, an article also reported on an illegal immigrant smuggling operation that was discovered in northern Vermont. Ten years earlier President Chester A. Arthur, a Vermont native, had signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. The paper reported that "heathen Chinee" were being illegally smuggled from Montreal to St. Johnsbury for a fee between $20 and $100 in direct violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It seems the Protestant English ruling class of 1892 was willing to accept loyalty-pledging immigrants from continental Europe but was not as open to Asian immigrants.

Since the 1890s, historical interpretations have changed. In response to continued pressure from immigrant groups, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a federal holiday, 'Columbus Day' in 1937.

In May of this year, Vermont state government replaced 'Columbus Day' with 'Indigineous Peoples' Day.' The Vermont law states, "Vermont was founded and built upon lands whose original inhabitants were Abenaki people and honors them and their ancestors." Maine, New Mexico, South Dakota and Alaska also have 'Indigineous Peoples' Day.' The political expediency of acknowledging immigrants in the last century has been superseded by the recognition that European colonizers devastated the people and cultures who were in the Americas before the Europeans arrived.

Meanwhile, in northern Vermont the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have expanded their checkpoint searches for illegal immigrants to 30 miles south of the border. News agencies report that since May of this year border agents have increased road stops on many northern Vermont roads. For the past four months the increased checkpoint vigilance has netted one "illegally present" Mexican citizen. As in 1892, this country continues to struggle with the desire for cheap immigrant labor on one hand and secure borders on the other.

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