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Washington’s Walla Walla Sweet Onion and How Its Discriminatory History Relates to Columbus Day

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book. Please DO NOT repost this.  

Washington’s Walla Walla Sweet Onion and How Its Discriminatory History Relates to Columbus Day

by Dina Di Maio

Since Colonial times, Columbus Day was celebrated in the United States.  In 1892, President Harrison celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage.  Due to the efforts of a Coloradan Italian originally from Genoa, Angelo Noce, Colorado became the first state to recognize Columbus Day in 1907. Because of the Ku Klux Klan, the parade stopped in the 1920s.   (By the way, it was an Italian judge, Alfred Paonessa, who outlawed the KKK in California in 1946.)  Noce worked to make the holiday a national one.  He died in 1922, and then the holiday was recognized in 35 states.  In 1934, due to the efforts of Generoso Pope, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed it a federal holiday.  But today, Columbus Day is threatened.  Seattle has changed it to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and more municipalities are following suit like Los Angeles.  According to Randy Aliment in We The Italians, president of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Seattle, the Italian Americans weren’t even allowed to meet with city officials regarding their proposal for an alternate holiday. 

This is especially interesting when one looks at the history of Italians in Washington State.  Immigrants from Northern and Southern Italy settled near Walla Walla, Washington, and went into the produce business.  In 1900, French soldier Pete Pieri brought “French onion” seeds from his native Corsica, and by the 1920s, Italian immigrants John Arbini and Tony Locati were growing what would later be known as the “Walla Walla Sweet” onion. 

Those farmers who settled in the Walla Walla valley often Anglicized their names to fit into the local society.  They weren’t considered white and were often referred to as “foreign” or “Dagos” in the local newspapers.  One such paper reported, “In the vegetable industry, John Chinaman and the sons of Italy cut considerable figure.  As gardeners, these two classes have few superiors . . . .  Of late years, however, attracted by the profits of the business, many white men and those representing the best citizenship have become holders of valuable vegetable lands.”  “John Chinaman” refers to the Chinese.  So the Chinese and the Italians, although better farmers, were inferior to the “white” farmers who were the “best citizenship.” 

This history of prejudice should not be forgotten, and in fact, should be used as a reason to strengthen the celebration of Columbus Day for Italians in Washington State and elsewhere because the same historical prejudice existed in most municipalities in the United States at that time.  Columbus Day was a source of pride for the early immigrants to Walla Walla.  Like in every Italian community in this country, they worked hard to create their livelihood and community on their own. They commissioned, i.e., raised their own money to pay for, a statue of Columbus and created a Columbus Day parade despite the negative feelings of the local “white” community.  This enterprising generation did not complain, but instead were proactive in their desire to become American, and their example should be emulated, and certainly not forgotten, an unintended (or not) consequence of the actions of our local governments when they abolish Columbus Day.

–Dina Di Maio

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book. Please DO NOT repost this.  

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