Columbus Day Survives Attack in Framingham – But He’ll Have To Share Space on School Calendar

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School officials in Framingham rejected a bid to replace Columbus Day on the school calendar with “Indigenous Peoples Day,” but added indigenous peoples to the commemoration.

The Framingham School Committee voted 5-4 Wednesday night to approve the change, with the majority seizing on a compromise offered by the superintendent of schools.

The four-member minority included two members who wanted to get rid of Columbus altogether and two members who wanted to keep Columbus without adding indigenous peoples.

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) made landfall on an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, claiming it for Spain. He was the first European of the modern era known to have reached the Americas, and his exploration initiated European colonization of the New World and mass migrations of people to North America and South America.

Admirers of Columbus, who include some Italian-Americans proud of his Genoa lineage, tout his courage and celebrate the coming of Europeans to the Americas. Critics of Columbus point to some of his harsh actions against Caribbean Indians and others, and they blame him for the subsequent spread of disease, slavery, and loss of lands by native peoples.

In Framingham, a city of about 70,000 about 19 miles west of Boston, anti-Columbus teachers and students brought the idea of scrapping the explorer to the school committee earlier in the school year. It came to a head during the committee meeting Wednesday, January 2.

Elana Gelfand, a ninth-grader, told the Framingham School Committee that her studies led her to conclude that Columbus shouldn’t be celebrated.

“Because of pushing the boundaries I learned how terrible Christopher Columbus really was,” Elana Gelfand said, while wearing a Harvard sweatshirt.

She criticized Columbus for being money-oriented.

“He was focused on bettering himself and not other people. … To add on, Columbus enslaved and mutilated the native people,” said Elana Gelfand, who in February 2018 unsuccessfully tried to persuade the city council to rename two streets with the word “Indian” in them. ” … We need to remember him in the way that history actually happened. He should not be idolized and thought of as a hero.”

Taylor Collins, a history teacher at Framingham High School, also spoke in favor of removing Columbus from the school calendar. She said history teachers currently hold a “trial” of Columbus “and other people” in class.

She said she and other teachers are reworking the early American history curriculum. “Our project is to bring more revision to U.S. history, to celebrate a diversity of people, and to include those missing discourses and voices that are in history,” Collins said, according to a video of the meeting on the Framingham government channel web site.

She presented a slide that included the following paragraph:

2019 Project:  Comprehensive revision of the Early US History to include missing discourses:  Native American, immigrant, African-American, Latino, LGBTQ and people with disabilities and learning differences

Joseph Adelman, an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University, also supported scrapping Columbus. He said Columbus barely surfaces as a figure of importance among the Founding Fathers, although he noted that the Continental Navy named a ship for him in 1775.

“But we no longer have a triumphant narrative that draws a straight line from Christopher Columbus to Plymouth to Lexington and Concord. That’s simply not the way we tell the story of our past,” Adelman said.

Only one member of the public spoke in favor of keeping Columbus on the calendar.

“Nine people on this committee should not be changing a longstanding legal holiday,” resident Robert Bowles said.

Glenda Cohen, an English as a Second Language teacher at Framingham High School, spoke Wednesday on behalf of MetroWest Educators for Social Justice, which she said was formed last summer “to build community and advocate for civil rights.”

“When faced with a difficult decision, it often can be easier to support the status quo. It can be risky to push back against myths and false narrative,” Cohen told the School Committee.

No one spoke in favor of Columbus as a historical figure. The primary argument several committee members used against removing Columbus from the school calendar is that the second Monday in October is a state and federal holiday called Columbus Day and that it’s not for a local school committee to change it.

But Cohen’s comment about supporting the status quo later triggered a response from committee member Scott Wadland.

“I also want to respond to the comment that was made earlier about a lack of courage, and the presumption or the suggestion that questioning this change that has been proposed shows a lack of courage. In my mind, taking a question like this, and thinking critically about it, and looking at the topic from all perspectives, and asking very difficult questions, and probing questions, rather than blindly following the recent bandwagon, that’s actually what takes courage,” Wadland said. “The fact that the nine of us may have different opinions, that’s what courage actually looks like – is standing up here and owning our opinions. And, you know, engaging in thoughtful and respectful dialogue.”

During a previous discussion by the School Committee on December 19, member Ricky Finlay said he did some reading that made him question both Columbus and the people he found when he arrived in the Americas.

“And I’ve done some research, and yes, Columbus did some awful things. There’s no doubt in my mind. But indigenous people back then, in some of the articles … did just about the same. It was the way the times were. It’s history. We can’t change that.  We can only move forward and educate,” Finlay said.

During the committee meeting this week, after some discussion, the committee rejected 2-7 a proposal to scrap Columbus. Committee members Gloria Pascual and Tracey Bryant voted for it.

The committee also considered a proposal to switch include both but switch the order.

“If we really want to come out of the Eurocentric philosophy where people of European descent are a higher class of people than people of color, then I think we should flip it from Columbus Day/Indigenous Day and to Indigenous Peoples Day/Columbus Day since the indigenous people were here first,” Bryant said.” So why can’t we just switch that around? And just make it that way? If we’re going to do the compromise, I would ask that.”

The committee rejected that proposal 2-7, with Pascual and Bryant in favor.

Finally, the committee voted 5-4 for superintendent of schools Robert Tremblay’s compromise to mention both Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, with Columbus Day mentioned first.

Voting for that proposal were committee chairman Adam Freudberg, Beverly Hugo, Noval Alexander, Geoffrey Epstein, and Tiffany Maskell.

Gloria Pascual and Tracey Bryant voted no. So did Scott Wadland and Ricky Finlay, but for different reasons – they wanted to keep the commemoration as Columbus Day as is.

The next commemoration of Columbus Day is Monday, October 14, 2019.