Gold is discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Massive numbers of fortune seekers from around the world begin to make their way to San Francisco to seek their fortunes. Among these new arrivals are large groups of merchant-class Italians from northern Italy. They arrive a full generation before the mass migration of the “…poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that came to America following the unification of Italy.
Thousands of Italian immigrants find themselves without the riches they had anticipated. Many are destitute and in need of assistance. To provide relief for these unfortunates, Nicola Larco, the wealthiest member of the Italian Colony of San Francisco, becomes founding president of La Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, the first and eventually largest mutual benefit society in San Francisco. Today, it is the oldest, continuously-existing Italian organization in the United States.
After retiring from La Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, community leader Nicola Larco establishes San Francisco’s First Columbus Day Celebration, marking the first time in San Francisco that Italian-Americans gather to hold a parade to honor their own accomplishments, as well as to remember the first European to cross the Atlantic Ocean, their countryman Christopher Columbus.
The inaugural parade takes place in San Francisco’s downtown, featuring the bands and marching units of Italian fraternal organizations, including the Garibaldi Guard, Swiss Guards and Lafayette Guards. Four floats are showcased: the first hosting the statue of Christopher Columbus, the second featuring two girls representing Spain and America, the third depicting the “Santa Maria” with a sailor dressed as Christopher Columbus; and the fourth honoring Italian gardeners and their agricultural achievements.
The San Francisco Columbus Day Committee is organized by the Salesian Fathers of Sts. Peter and Paul’s Church in North Beach. The celebration grows to include activities such as a formal Grand Ball, and a ceremony where a young man and woman are selected by the community to be crowned as the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to preside over the festivities.
Roaring 20’s – The Parade grows to include marching units, bands, decorated automobiles and floats. The celebration lasts over three hours with thousands attending the festivities. A new Parade route starts at San Francisco’s Civic Center, travels down Market Street through the Financial District, Chinatown and up Columbus Avenue to finish in front of Sts. Peter and Paul’s Church in North Beach.
Depression Era – The sponsorship of the Parade shifts from Sts. Peter and Paul’s Church to the Federation of Italian Societies, an organization representing civic, social and fraternal Italian-American organizations. In addition, the committee elects to abolish the role of “king” of the celebration and focus the ceremonies on a “queen.”
The celebration is incorporated into a non-profit corporation known as “Columbus Day Celebration, Inc.” A board of directors, consisting of past presidents, conducts all affairs and elects all of the contributing officers.
The Columbus Day Parade evolves into the Italian Heritage Parade in an effort to celebrate the accomplishments and culture of all Italians and Italian-Americans.
San Francisco’s Italian-American Community celebrates its 149th Italian Heritage Parade, featuring Italian and Italian-American dignitaries, music, performances, floats and representatives of Italian and Italian-American organizations and businesses.