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Immigration to American: Good, Bad, and Ugly: Our Continuing Conversation

Immigration to American: Good, Bad, and Ugly: Our Continuing Conversation

Jerry Krase (May 2, 2016)
Jerry Krase
Chicago's Taylor Street Little Italy was one of the many places in America to which Italian immigrants were directed or misdirected. Some of my wife's relatives from Laurino ended up there. This is one of few more or less "authentic" stores I found during a recent visit. It has little to do with this article but I thought it was semiotically interesting.

Although I agree that people should have the right to live where they wish and that coming to America is preferable to many other places, I disagree with overly generous views of the (un)welcome mat for despised minorities like Italians funneled through Ellis Island during the Great Immigration period to many places and eventual situations unknown.


My I-ItalyNY pen-pal Marcello Saija and I agree  “that although impractical, if not pie in the sky, everyone has the right to fix their residence where they want in the world. I also understand why he would “…be happy if really what is happening today in the Mediterranean was a bit 'similar to what was happening in America 100 or more years ago despite all its obvious flaws.” I must warn the unsuspecting reader however that there is lots more about the great wave of immigrants that crashed on America’s dangerously rocky shores between 1880 and 1920 on which we don’t see eye to eye. So these conversations may turn out to be long running.  Most Americans would be pleased with the overly generous view of the proverbial welcome mat for the despised minorities who were funneled through Ellis Island to many places and eventual situations unknown. Since we have limited space, here I will try to provide a few alternative views with a special focus on Italians. The first is as to their welcome to America.

            In 1906, speaking on "The Immigration Problem" Robert DeCourcy Ward warned that Slavs, Italians and Jews because of their high birth rates would "degrade" the "American race."  Other contemporary critics of Southern Italian immigration warned that Italians were a threat to America because they were not "white."  In fact it has been argued by some experts that the epithet "guinea" was "derived from a name attached to slaves from part of the western African coast."  The poverty of Southern Italy was so great during the latter part of the 19th Century that a transoceanic traffic was created for "Italian Slave Children." The New York Herald reported on one of many "raids" on Italian padrones who either through contractual arrangements with parents or kidnapping sent hordes of juvenile minstrels out to beg in the streets of New York and Philadelphia.  In one cel­lar "home" for the children the police and reporters found  "an abominable place, the breeding ground of disease and the abode of roaches and vermin."  In 1870 there was a "Riot in Mamaroneck." Irish and Italian laborers clashed over jobs.  The end result of the battle as reported in The New York Sun was: "The Italian population of Grand Park was Driven Out‑The Women and Children Sheltered in the Town Hall of Morrisania‑Our Home War of Races."  In many cases Italian laborers were paid lower wages than "native whites" or "negroes," making them more desirable employees. This fact of life was the justification for many riots against Italian workers who also were eager to work as "scabs" during strikes. Dixie plantation owners saw southern Italian peasants as potential replacements for freed black slaves.  The Italian government even cooperated in several "experiments" at population transfers, which were unsuccessful.  The problem was Italian peasants were too dif­ficult to control. Late 19th and early 20th Century American press accounts conveyed the message that "dagoes" were "dangerous," "lazy," "filthy," "cruel," "ferocious," and blood­thirsty."  One 1880s Irish‑American critic noted "The Italian was all too ready to ask for public assistance."  And, that the absence of "manly qualities" separated Italians from others in America.

            Much is made of the operation of Ellis Island at “full capacity” in the year 1892. Although there are other incidents of Italian immigrants being lynched by racist mobs, and massacred during anti-labor violence such as in Ludlow, the most (in)famous took place in New Orleans on March 14, 1891 when, as Patrick Gallo wrote: "a mob of 6,000‑ 8,000 people, led by prominent citizens, descended on the parish jail to get the "Dagoes."  State and local law officers, and the governor who was in the city at the time, stood by and did nothing, the mob hanged two of the suspects from lampposts, and lined nine of them up in front of the prison wall and blasted their bodies with rifles, pistols and shotguns, taking less than twenty minutes for their grim work."  The victims of the mob had been accused of killing the New Orleans Superintendent of Police whose dying words were "The Dagoes shot me...the Dagoes did it."  He did not recognize his killers. Neither did any other witness­es.  The Mayor of New Orleans therefore ordered the police "to arrest every Italian you come across."  About 150 were arrested.  When the courts began finding them innocent, the New Orleans Times‑Democrat called for "All good citizens attend a mass take steps to remedy the failure of justice...," resulting in the largest mass lynching in American history.  Public reactions were as good as could be expected.  Theodore Roose­velt con­sidered it "rather a good thing." and The New York Times agreed "the Lynch Law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans." To preserve American (dis)honor Presi­dent Benjamin Harrison apologized to the Italian government for the slaughter of these and other Italians in America and gave a $25,000 indemnity to the families of 18 victims. 

Some years later, Joseph E. Persico wrote “Vendetta in New Orleans” “Not everyone who studied the case shared this judgment. During the diplomatic sparring between the United States and Italy, the Department of Justice had been ordered to look into the incident. After reviewing the eight-hundred-page transcript of the Hennessy trial, a U.S. attorney, William Grant, reported that the evidence against the defendants was “exceedingly unsatisfactory” and inconclusive. And later, all charges outstanding against those who had survived the prison massacre were dropped.”

Coming soon: “How Italian Colonies became Little Italies.”

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