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‘A Precious Patch of Dirt’ - Southern Italians in Mississippi and Rochester, NY

‘A Precious Patch of Dirt’ - Southern Italians in Mississippi and Rochester, NY

Tom Verso (January 1, 2008)

"The Italian is so jealous of every foot of land; he will use a hoe in places too small to be worked with a plough”


In the early years of the 20th century, the rich barons owning large tracts of undeveloped land along the Mississippi River decided to import families from Italy to plant crops.  Even though the South had a large and under utilized farm labor force; the barons wanted southern Italians because, as one said: “It is always difficult to get local workers to plant and properly cultivate t

he outer edges of the field – the extreme ends of the rows, the ditch banks, etc. The Italian is so jealous of every foot of land; he will use a hoe in places too small to be worked with a plough” (see: “Rising Tide” by John M. Barry).  Those land barons realized that the rugged land and climate of southern Italy made southern Italians appreciate the value of every ‘precious patch of dirt’.
At the same time that southern Italians were being brought into Mississippi, thousands more came to the industrial city of Rochester NY to work in the clothing and other factories. They settled in classic ‘little Italy’ urban villages in the vicinity of the various factories. The “Mount Allegro” neighborhood made famous by Jerre Mangione in a book by that name was one such Italian urban village. Just across the river from Mount Allegro was the Brown Square little Italy.
The Brown Square neighborhood was an industrial and railroad complex that included Kodak’s Camera Works factory, scrap iron, coal yards, etc.  Also, there was the New York Central twelve boxcar wide freight yard, where goods transferred to and from trucks through a two block long warehouse. Laced in this industrial/transportation zone were the houses of hundreds of southern Italian immigrants clustered together with almost no yard space between them. One such house belonged to an Abruzzi immigrant Pietro Torrelli. The porch of his house was less than three feet from the sidewalk. Nevertheless, he fenced that ‘precious patch of dirt’ between the porch and the sidewalk and planted some of the most beautiful roses one can imagine. He was not unique. Fruits and flowers grew in every ‘nook and cranny’ the Brown Square Italians could find to plant. Indeed, the grapevines in the yard of Mr. Canepa from Sicily wedged between a bakery and a warehouse complex was not the only ‘vineyard’ in the neighborhood. Saratoga Ave. was an intensely used bus, truck and car route running through the center of the Brown Square neighborhood. Yet, all along the avenue, people driving by could view meticulously kept fruit and flower gardens. Like their compatriots in southern Italy and the Mississippi valley, the southern Italians in the Brown Square neighborhood cultivated every ‘precious patch of dirt.’
Today, the descendents of those southern Italian immigrants, living in the suburbs insolated from factories and commercial traffic, have large mostly grass covered yards - a patch of dirt is no longer thought precious because they have so much. And, they have come to think of their Italian ancestry in terms of north Italian Renaissance culture. They love to travel to Rome, Florence, Milan, etc. However, it is important to keep in mind - there was no Renaissance south of Rome! Southern Italian peasants did not express their craft, creativity and diligence in carved marble and painted frescos. To southern Italians, in their homeland, Mississippi or Brown Square, beauty was the fruits and flowers brought forth from a ‘precious patch of dirt.’

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Southern Italians in Mississippi

The Italians recruited to work in the cotton plantations of Mississippi were from the four northern and central regions of Marche, Emilia, Veneto and Lombardy. The presence of southern Italians, mainly Sicilians in both Arkansas and Mississippi plantations is due to their migrating north from Southern Louisiana. The reason is linked to the formation of the first experimental colony of Sunny Side, Arkansas : the Italian counterpart, don Emanuele Ruspoli, then mayor of Rome had land properties in the Marche region and the work of recruiters was directed to northern regions rather than towards the southern ones. Eugene Genovese has often claimed that Sicilians would have fared better, but that's another point of view.

The Italians who came to the

The Italians who came to the Mississippi Delta, recruited to work as sharecroppers by the cotton planters, were from the Le Marche region of Italy, on the Adriatic, many of them embarking from Ancona. I don't believe this is considered to be part of "southern" Italy. In general, as I understand it, Sicilians settled in the towns opening grocery stores and restaurants, although some of the store-owners trace their ancestry to the people who came from Ancona. I believe that southern Italians predominated on the Gulf Coast and New Orleans.

Italians in Delta

It may seem absurd to respond at this late date to Mr. Milnai and Ms. Adams; but, I just happened upon their comments. Although Ms. Miller place a note as recently as 4/10 so it seems that this article is still being read.

Accordingly, let me note that according to Paul Canonici’s generally acknowledged authoritative book “The Delta Italians”, “The Italians who settled on Delta plantations were mostly from central Italy, with a few from the northern provinces.”

While geographically Italy is thought of as North, Central and South; culturally Italy is often thought of as North and South. The geographic central regions such as Lazio and Abruzzo are culturally thought of as ‘southern Italian.’ Accordingly, it seems appropriate to speak of the Italians in the Mississippi Delta as “southern”; which is not to say that 100% were southern, rather a significantly large majority. However, it would be interesting to see, if it exist, census documentation of the breakdown

Southern Italians in the South USA

My grandparents came from the Campagnia and Basilicata regions as children. They were not Sicilian, not from northern Italy, did not settle at Sunnyside in Arkansas, but rather, they settled in the Mississippi Delta. My maternal gr-grandfather made at least 4 trips back and forth to Italy, but always returned to the Delta. They were farm laborers at first, but became farmers on their own, buying their own land. They seem to have not followed any trend.