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Crowd divided on changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day at school board forum

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
The audience at a recent Syracuse school board meeting.

A divided crowd got into a heated debate at a recent Syracuse school board meeting over whether the district should change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Some said changing the name takes away a part of the history of Italian-Americans.

Last year, after requests from some students, the Syracuse City School District changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day / Columbus Day. Now, Andy Mager with Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation and others are appealing to the board to drop Columbus altogether.

"If you talk to any teacher or students, and they have the day off, they say it’s Columbus Day," Mager said. "In order to make that leap and to change people’s consciousness and thinking, we need to change it. The Onondaga remain our neighbors and for many of them, it’s a real continuation of the pain that their people have experienced, that they continue to feel, to have Columbus celebrated as a hero, when their experience of what he brought was conquest, disease, destruction and genocide.”

But Italian-Americans and other Columbus Day supporters who came to the meeting said that Columbus is a part of the representation of what Italians have done for the community. Many of them expressed no problem with having an Indigenous Peoples’ Day, if it was on another day. Ed McLaughlin is a former Syracuse education commissioner who said the board should stop wasting its time on an issue he calls nonsense.

“I believe it’s a slippery slope," McLaughlin said. "It started with Stonewall Jackson, revising the Civil War. It’s revisionist history, nothing has been pure. It’s insane to do this stuff. Where do we go from here? Nobody's perfect and it was the time.”

The school board has not scheduled a vote on the issue.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.