On March 14th, 1891, eleven Italian immigrants were dragged out of a New Orleans jail, shot, hanged and clubbed to death as thousands of bystanders chanted "we want the Dagoes". The day before, nine of these men had been tried and found not guilty in the murder of Police Chief David Hennessy; the other two were being held on unrelated charges. Believing that the jury had been bribed, lynch law was considered "the only course open to the people of New Orleans" to curtail the "bloody practices" of the Mafia.
Teddy Roosevelt, who would later become the 26th president, justified the lynching as "a rather good thing" and most American news sources also sided with the lynchers. The victims, meanwhile, were described as "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins". Organizers of the attack were never charged and a wave of mass arrests and attacks on Italian immigrants nationwide ensued.
This was not an isolated incident; about 50 lynchings targeting Italians were documented between 1890 and 1920.
Despite being Italian and hailing from the second most Italian community in the country, where 49.5% of the town claims Italian ancestry, only recently did I learn that the victims of the largest mass lynching in U.S. history were Italian. This repressed piece of history was brought to my attention while reading "Why Sinatra Matters" by Pete Hamill, which I would highly recommend to any music history enthusiast.
My first reaction was "How did I never learn about this in school"? Even in the most intensive American History courses I've taken (and I've taken far more than any person should ever have to), this story is omitted from the curriculum. In fact, the Italian-American experience is almost avoided entirely; the prejudice, the economic exploitation, the Immigration Act of 1924, Sacco and Vanzetti, “enemy alien” photo ID booklets. But it's not just the textbooks. Aside from traditions I picked up at home reinforced by the occasional trip to Providence's Federal Hill, celebrations of the Italian-American experience and culture were a rarity---which is pretty crazy considering I spent most of my childhood in the state boasting the highest percentage of Italian-Americans. There were no movies that truly depicted the Italian-American struggle (so of course, no such movie has been nominated for an Oscar and no one has had a fit about it). I explicitly remember being upset that there was no American Girl Doll with Italian heritage which honestly, is how I was introduced to the stories and customs of many different nationalities. Almost everyone I knew growing up was Italian, or part Italian, but we didn't know what that meant.
Well, it certainly meant something very different than when our grandparents and great-grandparents were growing up. While our Italian heritage was just an afterthought, clustered with the greater white majority, Italian-Americans spent decades as the "other", considered "just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous". In the popular mind, Europe ended at Naples:
"Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa".
"But that was then. And this is now", you say. "Italian-Americans aren't oppressed now. That was so long ago".
This is true and it was. I've never been called a guinea or a wop. My Catholicism has never sparked suspicion among my peers. I certainly have never had to worry about being sent to an interment camp. But I find it disturbing that an era of bigotry was so prominent and institutionalized, yet so absent from modern history books and discussions on racism.
We love to celebrate the legacy of Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and countless others while disregarding the hostility they overcame that makes their success so unlikely and so remarkable. We love our Mafia movies (300 films featuring Italian Americans as criminals have been produced since The Godfather in 1972) without recognizing how these acrimonious stereotypes prompted decades of anti-Italian sentiment and even the worst lynching in American history. As decades pass, we have forgotten the depths of distrust and hatred. For me, March 14th is a reminder of the privileges and rights I have today in this country that weren't always such a guarantee. It gives me an even greater respect for my ancestors and other Italian immigrants who paved the way in an inhospitable environment. As I'm enjoying my annual zeppola next Sunday, it is a reminder that "Italian Pride" was once an inconceivable paradox rather than a popular T-shirt slogan in New Jersey souvenir shops.
For a country that prides itself in being a nation of immigrants, perhaps America does not have the best tract record with treating people who are different than us. History shows we have all faced those struggles at some point or the other. I'm not saying this to mollify the past experiences of other minorities in this country. But the reality is that only a few of these identities are considered relevant (by politicians, by Twitter, by schools, by most) in discussions on racism and the immigrant experience. Are cases of past injustices only relevant when they conveniently support a particular agenda? I'm not suggesting that. But how we talk about race is.
My intention here is not to plead the oppression card nor feed into the "them" versus "us" divide that is all too common in today's political and social landscape. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The struggle for humanity, whether it be decades or centuries removed, is something that notoriously unites us as human beings. None of those stories deserve to be forgotten.
I realize that this piece is a little more serious than the entertainment-related topics I usually write about (or the jovial tone I often write in). I simply read something in a book that surprised me and provoked further thought. Hopefully, this does the same.