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Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Józef Chełmoński

What you need to know about Casimir Pulaski Day

Written by
Clayton Guse

Today is the first Monday in March, which means that it's Casimir Pulaski Day. Anyone living outside of Chicago probably has little knowledge of the holiday outside of that one adorable Sufjan Stevens song, but Chicagoans hold the day pretty close to their hearts (especially since we're the only major city that officially recognizes it). The day's history and Casimir Pulaski's connection to Chicago can be a bit confusing. So, in an effort to clear things up a bit, here's what you should know about Casimir Pulaski Day.

General Casimir Pulaski was a total badass

After being exiled from Prussia and other European states for his part in several revolutions, Pulaski was recruited by Benjamin Franklin and Marquis de Lafayette in 1777 to join the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. Within two years, he became the general of a menacing calvary corp known as the Pulaski Calvary Legion, which was a key unit in both the northern and southern fronts of the war. In the failed Seige of Savannah in 1779, Pulaski was mortally wounded. But his efforts have been duly noted since then. In 1824, a monument for Pulaski was erected in Savannah (of which Lafayette laid the cornerstone). In 1929, Congress officially recognized October 11 as 'General Pulaski Memorial Day. In 1977, the state of Illinois enacted a law that created Casimir Pulaski Day on the first Monday in March. And in 2009, President Barack Obama signed a resolution that made Pulaski an "honorary American citizen."

Chicago Public Schools students used to have the holiday off

Anyone who grew up in Chicago probably remembers getting the first Monday in March off of school (it's the one holiday that acknowledges the city's sizable Polish population). From 1977 until 1995, public schools across Illinois were required to close for the holiday. Since then, its recognition has been optional for school districts. In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel dropped Pulaski Day as a day off during negotiations with the Chicago Teachers' Union, which miffed a lot of people who hold the holiday as a unique part of the city's culture.

Pulaski Road got its name through a mayor pandering to Polish voters

In 1913, the street now known as Pulaski Road was named "West Side 40th Street" (which was confusing considering that there's already a 40th Street on the South Side). That year, the street was renamed "Crawford Avenue" after a Cicero landowner. But in 1933, Mayor Edward Kelly wanted to throw Polish voters in the city a bone by renaming the street after Casimir Pulaski. Anti-Polish prejudice ignited an ugly fight over the street's name, which led to an injunction that made it all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. The court upheld the city's right to rename the street, and after nearly two decades of fighting and another lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court, the street running in the West 4000 block of Chicago was officially recognized as "Pulaski Road," which hasn't been changed since. 

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