Anyone who has had exposure to the world of opera has heard of the famous opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. Very likely, they have also heard of some of...
Patrizia Salvetti is professor of Political Science, La Sapienza Rome. In addition to her permanent assignment at La Sapienza, she has also been a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the City University of New York.
In Corda e Sapone, Prof. Salvetti documents a total of thirty-nine lynching of Italian immigrants between 1890 and 1945. She has written a revelatory work that has profound implications for the often distorted construction of race in America. Her study is a revelatory addition, as well, to the history of Italians in America. If Lawrence DiStasi’s Una Storia Segreta exposes the hidden history of Italian internment during World War II, Salvetti’s study exposes the unknown history of the lynchings of Italian immigrants throughout America.
Ever since Richard Gambino’s 1974 study of the lynching of eleven Italians in New Orleans in 1891, Vendetta: The True Story of the Largest Lynching in the U.S., Italian American scholars have known something about the lynching of Italian immigrants in America. However, Salvetti brings to light in her study the much broader dimensions of the lynching of Italian immigrants before 1945, from the South and Northeast to the West. None of the information included in her study has ever been explored in either mainstream American history or even in specialized studies on the subject.
It has long been known in the historical documents of the period that rather than being perceived as “white,” Italian immigrants in fact were perceived in the South as enemies of the racist Jim Crow laws. The literature on Sicilians’ widely known resistance to the Jim Crow laws goes back to the 1890s in an article published in the popular Harper’s Magazine. The problem of lynchings became so widespread at the time that a law professor, after the lynching of two Italian immigrants October of 1914 and June of 1915 in Illinois, published an article in the Yale Law Review in which he urged the federal government to override states’ rights and pass federal legislation allowing the federal government to prosecute the perpetrators of the lynchings.
Following the New Orleans 1891 lynchings, in 1896 three more Italian immigrants were taken from the prison in Hahnville, Louisiana, and lynched. Three years after that event, in another of the largest lynchings in the South, five more Sicilian immigrants were lynched in 1899 in Tallulah, Louisiana. The towns’ growing animosity towards two Sicilian store owners was the basis for the killings. Over a period of months, the Sicilian store owners had offended the towns’ racists by refusing to wait on white people before their black customers.
In the wake of the Tallulah lynchings, in a Harper’s Magazine article entitled “Tallulah’s Shame,” the author wrote that “When the Italians first came into Madison, a few years ago, they were a puzzle to the white people of that parish. Like the bat, they were difficult to classify, and this is more difficult because they dealt mainly with the negroes, and associated with them nearly on terms of equality. They could therefore hardly be classed as ‘white men,’ yet they were certainly not negroes. Just how to treat them was a difficult problem. It has finally been settled. They are to get the justice awarded a negro in Madison who assaults, or shoots at, or kills a white man—lynching; not a trial.” The journalist concludes by writing that the dominant white population in Madison is simply not willing to “admit the Italian to their ranks.” This article was unique at the time in the sympathy it expressed for the Italian immigrants.
In her, Alligator Bayou, (which I will review in the upcoming weeks in L’Italo-Americano), Donna Jo Napoli has written an excellent fictional treatment of the Tallulah lynchings. The Sicilian store owners did the unthinkable in the American South in the 1890s. When their white customers demanded that they be waited on first ahead of their black customers, the Sicilian store owners told them that they had to wait their turn behind their black customers who had entered the store before them. They and three other Sicilians paid the highest price for their resistance to the Jim Crow laws: they were lynched along with three other Sicilians. The Louisiana lynchings terrorized all other Italians in the region for years.
Sicilian immigrants’ resistance to Jim Crow Laws are nothing new to me or any Sicilian with roots in the American South. My father was born and raised in Bryan, Texas. One story he told often was the day that three members of the local Ku Klux Klan knocked on my grandfather’s door. In threatening language they told my grandfather that he had to stop allowing his black friends in through their front door and to stop eating at the dinner table with them. The threat was clear: if he didn’t, he personally would either come to a violent end or the Klan would return some night and burn the house down, killing the entire family, including my father and his seven siblings.
In typical Sicilian fashion, my grandfather did not stop socializing with his black friends. My father always said with a smirk, “We ate out by the barn mostly anyway, where we roasted our pigs and made our sauces.” After centuries of enduring the dominance of invading cultures, from the Saracens to the French, Germans and English, Sicilians knew how to deal with hostile, dominant social forces while maintaining their own identity and dignity.
For her documentation, Salvetti painstakingly scoured newspaper archives in local historical societies and libraries. These newspaper articles provided some of the most revealing attitudes of the era towards Italian immigrants. Seldom did the papers ever condemn the lynchings. The often unstated subtext of the articles was that the Italian immigrants were always in some way responsible for their own lynchings. Perhaps the most informative source that Salvetti consulted on the subject is in the diplomatic archives in Rome. Because most of the Italian immigrants were Italian citizens and had not become naturalized American citizens, after each lynching, the Italian ambassador to the U.S. was informed.
There ensued an exchange of letters between the ambassador and Italy and then among Italy, the ambassador, and the president of the U.S. The ambassador’s and the Italian government’s protests were met repeatedly with the same response from the U.S. State Dept. and the various sitting U.S. presidents: the federal government could do nothing about the lynchings because they were under local and state jurisdictions. As a result, all the lynchings went unpunished because of states’ rights.
The South was loath, of course, to punish the perpetrators. As the newspaper files demonstrate, local law enforcement, as well as the citizenry in general, felt that, since they were resisting the Jim Crow cast system, the Italians were in some form responsible for their fate. At the time, in the popular mind, all Italian immigrants were considered criminals.
Wide-spread lynchings throughout the U.S. are an ignominious fact in U.S. history at this time. In an essay on the subject, Mark Twain would famously rename the U.S., the “United States of Lyncherdom.” Though lynchings, including the lynching of immigrants throughout the U.S. occurred at the time, it must be emphasized that nearly five thousand African Americans during this same period were also lynched. In addition, African Americans were terrorized and lynched throughout America long after 1945. Because of states’ rights, even outside the South, many of these lynchings went unpunished.
In his otherwise useful study, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, Ken Gonzales-Day, a professor art at the Claremont Colleges, documents the lynching of Mexican and Asian immigrants in the West. He expresses surprise in his study that the lynching of Mexican and Asian immigrants has gone undocumented in the main-stream western history. However, Professor Gonzales-Day fails to mention any of the Italian immigrants lynched in America during this period or even to index Gambino’s well-known work, which was even made into an HBO film in 1999.
Gonzales-Day further compounds the erasure of Italian immigrant lynching with a well-reviewed photographic exhibit at the Luis de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles. Again there is no mention of the fifty Italian immigrants who were lynched in America with impunity during the same period.
If we are ever to understand race in America, we must come to some understanding of what constitutes the immigrant narrative, both historically and now. We must be wary of spurious comparisons: we should never assume that the racism against immigrants in America is ever equal to the racism that has plagued African Americans before and after slavery. That would be disrespectful and a co-opting of the African American struggle for equality over the last four hundred years. No group suffered more lynchings or discrimination based on race than African Americans.
However, both Gonzales-Day’s and Salvetti’s studies demonstrate how the immigrant narrative in America can open a meaningful discourse with the African American narrative, as well as all others.
In light of Mitt Romney’s recent disparaging comments about “the Italians” and the National Italian American Foundation’s immediate condemnation of him, we have to ask, how has the image of Italians in America changed over the last one hundred years in the popular mind? American historians have ignored the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, in which Italian immigration was reduced by 78.9%. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Exclusion finished the job with a more comprehensive law, which reduced Italian immigration by 98.7% . The restriction against Italians was based in the popular theory of eugenics: to prevent any further corruption of the American Aryan stock from the sub-human Mediterranean “races.” The Johnson-Reed all but stopped the emigration of Italians to America for over forty years until the law was rescinded in 1965. Out of courtesy to our nearest neighbors, the Johnson-Reed act did not exclude Canadians, Mexicans, and Caribbean islanders.
Patrizia Salvetti’s Corda e Sapone is an invaluable contribution to Italian studies in America. It is a shame that it remains in Italian and largely unavailable to American historians. If the erased history of Italian immigrant lynchings is ever to find its place on the shelf, this work must be translated immediately into English and published by an American publisher. This would be another important project that an Italian American organization, such as Patrons of Italian Culture, could sponsor by paying for the cost of translation. Any American academic press would jump at the chance of publishing Salvetti’s informative work, especially if the cost of translation were covered.
Ken Scambray’s most recent works are The North American Italian Renaissance: Italian Writing in America and Canada, Surface Roots: Stories, and Queen Calafia’s Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel. He teaches in the English Dept. at the University of La Verne.