A Little Bit of Italian American History

Here in Western Massachusetts it is definitely the week of the Irish, with over 400,000 attendees expected at Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade this coming Sunday. However, in Noelle-land, it’s the Feast of St. Joseph (zeppole anyone?) and I’m busy learning more about my Italian heritage. On March 19th, la Festa di San Giuseppe honors the Virgin Mary’s husband, patron saint of workers, and recalls a time in the Middle Ages when God saved the Sicilians from a terrible drought through St. Joseph’s intercessions. To learn more about the culinary traditions associated with this day, (fava beans! fish! breadcrumbs!), check out this article.

In honor of this special feast day, I’d like to share with you some Italian American history. Though this blog has taught me a great deal about cooking Italian food, I haven’t had much time to dedicate to genealogy research. I plan on making that a priority this year, starting with some historical context.

This week I started watching PBS’s Italian Americans documentary, which is currently streaming online (but will soon expire, so check it out while you can!). Though I know a fair bit about the history of immigration from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, there are a lot of details I’m just learning now. Below are just a few that have captured my attention.

Firstly, I was under the impression that most Italian immigrants came to the Northeast (New York) and Chicago. I had no idea that one of the first Italian American enclaves was in New Orleans or that Italian Americans came to dominate the fishing industry in Northern California in the late 1800’s.

While Italian Americans are now fully integrated into society, the prejudice they initially faced by the dominant classes was horrific. I learned about the sensational murder trial of New Orleans police chief David Hennessey, which resulted in the lynching of 11 Sicilian men and general distrust and mistreatment of Italians throughout the city. I was previously unaware of the discrimination Irish Catholics subjected Italian Americans to, despite (or perhaps in spite of) the fact that the Irish and Italians shared a religion and a similar experience of inequality in America. In the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Italian East Harlem, the Irish clergy forced Italians to keep their statue of the Madonna in the basement instead of on the main altar, which ultimately led to the first New York celebrations of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, allowing the Madonna to be witnessed and worshiped by all. (Side note: In grad school I went to the Williamsburg, Brooklyn celebration and it was an amazing experience!) And though I knew immigration quotas were put in place in the early 20th century, I learned more about the Johnson Reed Act and its effect on Italians and other immigrants: by 1924, more Italians left the U.S. than were allowed in.

I was surprised to learn about Italian American history right here in the Bay State: their role in the Lawrence textile mill strike in the early 1900’s as well as the widely-publicized Sacco and Vanzetti trial, which convicted two Italians of murder, based largely on anti-Italian sentiment and prejudice against Sacco and Vanzetti’s anarchist beliefs.

Of course, the documentary covers the Black Hand, the Mafia, Italian bootleggers, and other criminals, but makes the point that undue attention was and is given to the negative aspects of Italian American culture, as is [unfortunately] typical of media coverage of minorities. The documentary also covers great Italian and Italian American heroes such as Rudolph Valentino, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, and Fiorello La Guardia, among others.

I’m only about halfway through the series and I look forward to learning more. As cheesy as it sounds, this documentary makes me very proud of my ancestors and all that they endured here in pursuit of a better life. Despite unfair labor and immigration laws, religious discrimination, general societal disdain, and other disadvantages, they flourished. This documentary also delivers the pertinent lesson that we, as a nation of immigrants, should be mindful of past inequalities, present injustices, and how we treat immigrants and minorities today.


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