Immigrants have always been entering the United States since the start of the
country. During the mid to late 1800s, there was a large increase in the amount of immigrants
who were coming from Europe. From 1870-1920, 25 million European immigrants came to the
United States with large number coming from Italy. Italian immigrants would travel as far
south as Texas and as far west as California. The Italian immigrant was viewed as lower than
immigrants from other European countries. The children of Italian immigrants would initially
see the same discrimination but would slowly see the public accept their culture. This exhibit
investigates the transition Italian immigrants made from first coming to the United States to be a
main contributor and member of society from 1870 to 1960. During this time, the views of the
American public saw a shift from viewing Italian immigrants and their children as second class to
viewing them as true members of society. The focus will be on the ethnic prejudice Italians faced,
the living arrangements, occupations, and dedication to helping the war efforts.
Many Italian immigrants who came during the 1870s looked for living in not only the northeast, but also the south. In the south, Italian immigrants face many of the same racial issues that African Americans faced. Sharecropping was a common occupation and lynching were not uncommon. Despite the constant attempts to force out the Italian immigrants, they would continue to stay and work in cheap labor and even their own farms for decades.
Up in the northeast, the use of redlining made it difficult for Italian immigrants to climb
the rungs of the social ladder. Redlining was a tactic used by realtors to map out which
neighborhoods the government should loan money to for mortgages. Areas that the government
would strongly consider funding would be listed as green or blue. Neighborhoods listed as
yellow or red would have little to no government help. Italians and African Americans would be
found in large quantities in the yellow and red areas. Despite being forced to live in poor living arrangements, Italians took the opportunity to make their new neighborhoods feel like home. The
neighborhoods would be flooded with many Italians who practiced the same customs and used these to form ethnic enclaves.
Unfortunately, Italians could not escape the name-calling and discrimination while at
work. Desperate for work, Italian immigrants would often be hired by companies for very little
while their workers were on strike, hence the names “wage-cutters” and “strikebreakers”.
Despite the constant verbal abuse, the majority of Italian immigrants from 1880 to 1914 found
themselves in industrial jobs. Many of these families would also face racial slurs by not only
those around them, but by the mass media. Interviews have detailed the accounts of some
Italian immigrant children hiding their true ethnicity from friends. These children have also even told family members who were visiting to not reveal their true ethnicity. Children of Italian immigrants who did not hide their ethnicity would face bullying for many reasons. Some would have to start school much later than most Americans, and other Italian children would hear the cries of ethnic slurs. Mass media would use these same ethnic slurs and promote Italians as lazy and stupid. Italians would fight back and put an end to this in the 1950s with the help of Generoso Pope Jr.
The view of Italians would change once the second generation of Italians in the United
States began to grow up. What once was a clash of cultures in Boston (between Italians and Irish
gangs) became just a clash of neighborhoods. Italians would continue to weave themselves
into the American fabric with the large number of men who joined the military for World War
II. The Italians who were staying at home contributed by buying war bonds and any other civil
duty they could volunteer for. Italians who first came over at the turn of the century noted later on that there was a noticeable hatred at first for Italians that clearly vanished over time.
This exhibit will define Italian immigrants as those who left Italy to come to the United
States. The exhibit will highlight the treatment of Italians in various locations in the United
States (North and South), in living arrangements and social situations. The start will be the 1870s because this is considered the beginning of the large surge of European immigration to the United States. The article written by Jessica Jackson titled, “Before the Lynching: Reconsidering the Experience of Italians and Sicilians in Louisiana, 1870s to 1890s.” will be used in the start of the project. This article was chosen to be used first because it starts, chronologically, before any of my other sources. Based on my research, the end of the exhibit will be the article found from 1953 by James G. Fleming about the efforts of Italians to stop the use of racial slurs in mass media.
The exhibit will highlight the treatment of Italian immigrants, and their children, by the American
population. Examples of treatment will come in the form Jessica Jackson’s article on Italian treatment in the South. You will also be able to see how realtors helped to avoid government funding to Italians by viewing the redlining map that depicts Essex County, New Jersey, specifically Belleville and Newark which were very popular place for Italian Americans to live. Stereotypes will also be present in firsthand accounts in Cohen’s, America: The Dream of My Life and Panunzio’s, The
Soul of an Immigrant. The exhibit will also use interviews from Cosma Sullivan and Mary Stracco to detail what life was like as an Italian and how hiding one’s nationality was mandatory and not optional.
The exhibit will then dive into the change of American opinion on Italians. The Daily
Boston Globe news article by Louis Lyons will detail how Italians did everything they could to
help and support the United States during World War II. Lyon’s article will also detail how the
public was satisfied with how the Italian Americans responded to the call to action. There will
also, be a picture used to show how Italians in France during the war.
1 Foner, Eric. Give me Liberty! An American History. New York, N: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.
2 Schmid, Carol L. 2017. “The Past Is Ever Present: Transnationalism Old and New – Italian and Mexican Immigrants in the US.” International Migration 55 (3): 20–37.
3 Malaspina, Rick. Images of America: Italian Oakland. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.
4 Luconi, Stefano. 2016. “Black Dagoes? Italian Immigrants’ Racial Status in the United States: An Ecological View.” Journal of Transatlantic Studies (Routledge) 14 (2): 188–99.
5 Scarpaci, Jean Ann, and Milton Cantor. 1979. “Immigrants in the New South: Italians in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes, 1880-1910.” In American Workingclass Culture: Explorations in American Labor & Social History, 377–96.
6 Jackson, Jessica Barbata. 2017. “Before the Lynching: Reconsidering the Experience of Italians and Sicilians in Louisiana, 1870s-1890s.” Louisiana History 58 (3): 300–338.
7 “Making American Farmers of Italian Immigrants: Successful Experiments in Building Up Colonies to Till the Soil, Though States Give Insufficient Encouragement.” The New York Times, December 4, 1910.
8 Hagstrom’s Street and House Number Map of Essex County New Jersey [map]. New York, N.Y.: Hagstrom Company, Inc., 1939.
9 Cohen, David Steven, America, The Dream of My Life: Selections from the Federal Writers’ Project’s New Jersey Ethnic Survey. New Brunswick: Library of Congress Publication, 1990, page 55-70.
10 Molnar, Alexandra. “History of Italian Immigration.” From Europe to America: Immigration Through Family Tales.
11 Seavoy, Ronald E. An Economic History of the United States: From 1607 to the Present, Taylor & Francis, 2006.
12 Cosma Tangora Sullivan (Ellis Island Oral History Project, Series KECK, no. 118), interviewed by Debby Dane, January 17, 1986, transcript
13 Mary Nazaro Stracco (Ellis Island Oral History Project, Series EI, no. 870), interviewed by Janet Levine, April 30, 1997.
14 Fleming, G James. “Italians Fighting Slurs: Italians Plan Fight Against Racial Slurs.” New York Amsterdam News, April 11, 1953.
15 Whyte, William Foote. 1939. “Race Conflicts in the North End of Boston.” New England Quarterly 12 (4): 623–42.
16 Lyons, Louis. “How Boston Italians Are Aiding in Our War Effort.” Daily Boston Globe, April 26, 1942.